OPINION: What do you think of when you think of Southeast Asia? Holidays in Bali or Lombok? Night markets, tropical fruits and cheap food?
Chances are you’re not thinking about the single origin coffee, or some of the world’s best chocolate, or cutting-edge apps.
While we may be familiar with New Zealand’s historic ties to the region – such as the Colombo Plan and our defence relationships – our views of Southeast Asia are probably a decade or two behind the contemporary reality.
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A few weeks ago the Asia New Zealand Foundation hosted a group of impressive Southeast Asian entrepreneurs in New Zealand through the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative, a government programme we run to improve business networks between New Zealand and Asia.
The seven participants came from Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, and represented a range of start-ups in the food and beverage sector.
They are sophisticated entrepreneurs with degrees from the likes of Harvard and Oxford, and extensive business connections around Asia. Many of them have broken into large markets beyond their home countries.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation introduced them to New Zealand food and beverage counterparts, enabling them to compare notes on their respective markets and on best practice.
Just having the group in the country provided New Zealand exporters with valuable insights and resulted in all sorts of serendipitous opportunities. At dinner one night in Tauranga, Vietnam’s Bui Quang Minh met a local supplier of frozen cakes for export. Bui could see opportunities for those cakes in countries throughout Asia.
Singapore’s Alan Goh was surprised by the high standard of food he encountered while in New Zealand – but mostly he was surprised that nobody knew about it.
He pointed out that around 15 brands of yoghurt are popular in Singapore, and yet none are New Zealand brands. He thinks New Zealand may be over-estimating its brand recognition in the region.
The group also identified opportunities to invest in New Zealand companies and to source safe, high-quality food ingredients from New Zealand.
Meanwhile in Wellington, Thailand’s Fuadi Pitsuwan turned up at a local cafe with large bag of green coffee beans and, after they’d been roasted, found himself with an order for several hundred kilos.
And Indonesia’s Indradi Soemardjan, someone the Asia New Zealand Foundation hosted in New Zealand three years ago, happened to be in town to talk coffee with another Wellington roastery.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation has also been taking New Zealand entrepreneurs to Southeast Asia on similar programmes in the past couple of years. This has helped premium food and beverage companies like CHIA and Spring Sheep New Zealand strengthen their connections in the region.
In some ways (for instance, reduced language barriers) Southeast Asian countries and cultures can be easier for us to negotiate than North Asian ones. The 10 countries of ASEAN are home to about 625 million people, and the region has a youthful demography.
But its potential is often overlooked as New Zealand focuses its attention on larger individual economies in Asia.
Shortly after the entrepreneurs’ visit, Singaporean Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan visited New Zealand. The two countries announced they would be upgrading their Closer Economic Partnership, creating closer connections in trade and economics, security and defence, people-to-people links, and research, technology and innovation. And yet, it went largely unreported here.
On the upside, I’ve just returned from a visit to Vancouver with the sense that New Zealand isn’t doing too badly in its Asia engagement, despite its modest investment.
Staff at our sister organisation the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada said they looked towards New Zealand as being leaders in the field. They saw our small size as an advantage; while Vancouver is one of the world’s “super-diverse” cities and has extensive international connections, the story is quite different in Newfoundland.
They told me it was hard to get young Canadians interested in internship, study and work opportunities in Asia when they had the world’s largest market sitting just a car ride away in the United States. The fact we don’t have the luxury of large countries just across the border means New Zealand is more energised and proactive in its engagement with Asia.
So the next time you think about opportunities in Asia, don’t overlook the ASEAN region. And try and see it as a hot-spot for innovation in technology, services, and food and beverage – rather than an undeveloped backwater. In short, look at it through a 2017 lens.
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations, with a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to forge links to the region.