Singapore and Thailand visit whets appetites of Māori F&B entrepreneurs

There’s no better way for business owners to learn about new markets than to put feet on the ground and experience it for themselves – to make connections, meet with industry representatives and get a taste of what’s available locally. This is just what nine Māori food and beverage entrepreneurs and emerging business leaders had the opportunity to do when they took part in a visit to Singapore and Thailand last month, led by Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono and with support from Māori-trade advocates Te Taumata.

Wai Mānuka founder and managing director Joe Harawira talks about his key takeaways from being part of the delegation

The Māori economy is going from strength to strength, having grown by over 300 percent in the past two decades, reaching an impressive $70b. Asia is increasingly seen as a key market for Māori businesses, and it’s a region where they have an edge, says the Foundation’s senior business adviser Ethan Jones (Ngāi Takoto, Te Aupōuri). 

Ethan describes the trip as an opportunity to empower emerging Māori business leaders to leverage their advantage through visiting the region to gain insights into local business operations, and establish valuable professional networks.

“We see so many connections between Māori culture and cultures in Asia, connections that serve Māori well when doing business in the region," he says.

“For instance, as Māori we have a way of engaging and doing business that starts with relationships – whanaungatanga – this really resonates with how business is done in Asia. 

"Another similarity is the multi-generational approach of family businesses in Asia and how much this aligns with our iwi or hapū-led Māori entities."

The delegates who took part in the trip came from the length of the motu, with businesses ranging from honey mead drinks to software solutions to reduce argri-food waste. Despite their diverse businesses, they all shared a common commitment to kaitiakitanga (environmental stewardship) and a desire to create sustainable businesses.

The kaupapa of the trip was to travel as a distinctly Māori delegation and bring Māori tikanga to proceedings, such as the sharing of karakia, giving of koha and expressing appreciation to hosts through waiata. 

It was an important aspect of the trip  says the Foundation’s Kaitohutohu Matanga Māori | Chief Advisor, Māori Veronica Thompson, who was part of the delegation.

"He mea nui tēnei nā te mea e hiahia ana mātou kia tuwhera ngā kuaha ki Āhia ki te  maha o te Māori, a, kia tūtuki ake te herenga ki te Tiriti o Waitangi | This is important because we want to open the doors to Asia to more Māori and better meet our obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi."

The delegation standing under the  kūwaha (Maori Gate) at Singapore's Marina Bay Gardens

The delegation visiting Tane Te Wairoa (a Māori gateway) at Singapore's Garden's by the Bay

The Singapore leg was a whirlwind of meetings, site visits and market exploration.

Starting with an official welcome (whakatau) from NZTE and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade representatives, the three busy days included hearing about the future of Singapore’s food security; a tour of the country's first shared facility for small batch food production and visits to supermarkets to identify potential product placements.

“The main thing we took away from Singapore is that it is an excellent market to test and learn, and it provides potentially a springboard into the other Asian markets,” says delegate and co-founder of Wai Mānuka Joe Harawira (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Rangi).

From Singapore, the group travelled to Thailand to continue their market research journey in Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, where a quickly growing middleclass is opening doors for New Zealand products and produce.

The Thailand leg began with an event hosted by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade where the delegation heard from food importation and logistics companies about the ins and outs of importing food into Thailand.

They also engaged in additional meetings with government and industry representatives and attended THAIFEX, the largest food and beverage trade show in Asia. Alongside 78,000 industry representatives from around the world, they experienced the latest trends and technologies in the F&B sector.


A man speaking into a microphone in a lab

Visiting Thailand's food innovation hub Food Innopolis provided the entrepreneurs with insights into the country's research, development and innovation space

Visiting Singapore and Thailand and hearing from industry experts was an amazing opportunity to learn more about the Southeast Asia market and more importantly the consumer, says Lone Bee founder Oran Dalton (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa, Ngāti Porou).

“Understanding that the New Zealand brand is very strong in the region and that our products are well sought after and considered to be high quality has provided me with great confidence that my product, Lone Bee Sparkling Mead, will do well up there.”  

His sentiments were echoed by delegate Jackie Stephens (Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti te Rangi), who is the Kaiāwhina Kaupapa (Project Assistant) at Wakatū Incorporation's AuOra. AuOra is a functional food and ingredient startup with a focus on exporting to Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore. 

"Going into that market to see where the synergies are, gaining an understanding of the trends, the people and culture has encouraged AuOra to start preparing and activating our market entry plan."

In Thailand, the group joined up with 60 Southeast Asian entrepreneurs and ten from New Zealand as part of the Foundation’s Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI), which facilitates trade and builds connections between business leaders and entrepreneurs in New Zealand and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Hua Hin YBLI summit provided an opportunity for the delegates to share their entrepreneurship journeys, hear from keynote speakers and make connections with fellow business leaders.

A group of ten people sitting on chairs in a circle chatting

Their time in Hua Hin was an opportunity to talk shop with business leaders from throughout Southeast Asia and New Zealand

Oren says pending time with the YBLI entrepreneurs was not only inspiring but also resulted in tangible business connections that he hopes will lead to export opportunities.

"Hearing about their challenges and learning from their experiences has motivated me to persevere with my own business aspirations," he says.

"Moreover, I was able to forge strong connections with numerous entrepreneurs, creating future business prospects in the Southeast Asian region, including collaborations with distributors in Thailand and Malaysia for Lone Bee Sparkling Mead."

While the busy ten-day schedule left little room for sightseeing, there was time in both Singapore and Thailand to experience some of the local cultures.

Highlights included the delegation visiting the kūwaha Tāne te Waiora  - a carved Māori gateway symbolising the connections between Aotearoa and Singapore - at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay and, of course, trying some of the local cuisine, from both street food and high-end establishments.

Dancers in traditional Thai costume perform on a street watched by the New Zealand and YBLI delegation

Performances put on specifically for the visiting group provided an opportunity for them to experience Thai culture

In Thailand, a cultural show put on for the delegates by a local council in the coastal city of Hua Hin was a particular favourite. The event featured children showcasing their Muay Thai skills, as well as traditional music and dance performances.

In return, the delegation, accompanied by some of the YBLI entrepreneurs, expressed their gratitude by delighting the crowd with a rendition of the waiata Te Aroha.

“It was wonderful to have this exchange of cultures – to experience Thai hospitality and and be able to return the gift through waiata,”  Ronnie says.

"Kia mohio koe ko wai koe, no hea koe, to ahurea hoki, e kii ana ka pai ake te whakatere ki te ao hurihuri | When you know who you are, where you come from, your culture, it is believed that one can better navigate the contemporary world."

The Foundation's business programme supports New Zealand companies and business leaders to better understand Asia so they can make the most of opportunities in the region. We are also focussed on growing the next generation of Asia-savvy business leaders.