Simon Draper:
Southeast Asians tackle sustainability

When Kiwis picture the impacts of climate change, melting ice shelves in Antarctica is probably one of the first images to spring to mind.

But one part of the world most affected by a changing climate is Southeast Asia, home to more than 640 million people. The region is one of the world’s most vulnerable globally when it comes to weather extremes and rising sea levels, due to long coastlines and low-lying areas. As typhoons and related floods increase in frequency and severity, the impacts are having a real effect on the livelihoods of millions.

Michael Sly from Wilding & Co with Myanmar entrepreneur Okka Phyo and Vietnam's Uyen Le

Michael Sly from Wilding & Co with Myanmar entrepreneur Okka Phyo and Vietnam's Uyen Le

Additionally, Southeast Asia is the biggest destination for exports of New Zealand’s plastic waste – our export volumes to Southeast Asia have soared since China banned imports of plastics in 2017.

The scale of the environmental challenges faced by these countries also means that some of the most innovative global solutions are likely to come from Southeast Asia.

A few weeks back, the Asia New Zealand Foundation hosted eight entrepreneurs from the region in New Zealand as part of the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative. Hailing from five countries, they work in areas as diverse as e-waste processing, organic rain-fed cotton, ethical tourism and sustainable fishing.

While many of their ideas were familiar to Kiwis, other were cutting-edge. Take Indonesia’s Adi Reza, of biotech company Mycotech, which has invented building materials from agri-waste bound together using mushroom mycelium. If buildings (and “leather”) made from mushrooms sounds a bit wacky, Mycotech has commercialised this technology. It is now used in buildings and installations in the Singapore and Germany.

Myanmar’s Okka Phyo Maung, meanwhile, has created an app that enables people to recycle waste – sort of an Uber for recycling.

We took Reza, Okka and their equally impressive Southeast Asian counterparts to visit New Zealand businesses that have a focus on sustainability – the likes of Auckland-based Ecostore (one of New Zealand’s most successful exporters to Asia) and Queenstown’s Ziptrek and Wilding & Co.

They also participated in several speaking engagements and joined a Sustainability Hui for members of our Leadership Network, a network comprised of top young New Zealanders from a range of sectors who are working to increase understanding between New Zealand and Asia. These speaking engagements were one way of us highlighting that environmental challenges resulting from climate change are not just an iceberg thing.

The Southeast Asians had plenty to talk about with New Zealand counterparts in areas like blockchain, traceability, and marketing.

And they also identified similarities in terms of the need to think globally.

In Southeast Asia, the scale of the local market means businesses can usually get away with being domestically focused.

But for sustainability entrepreneurs, Southeast Asian markets are too small. A recurring theme from the visiting entrepreneurs was that most people they spoke to in their home countries didn’t speak the sustainability lingo, and high-end products are too pricey for many.

So our Southeast Asian guests were very focused on understanding overseas markets – the likes of Japan, South Korea, the US and Australia– in the same way New Zealand businesses often are. They had to be thinking globally right from the earliest days of their start-ups.

The group was impressed by their interactions with Māori entrepreneurs, particularly when they joined a Tāmaki Hikoi run by Ngāti Whatua. They described a sense of connection with Māori values, but were also impressed by how Māori entrepreneurs were using modern technology like blockchain and cryptocurrency to achieve their aims of social change.

What impressed me the most was that for the all the talk of sustainability by policy makers and others, these young entrepreneurs are actually doing it, and to scale. It was clear that though they were small in number, they had a passion and a drive that was powerful and gaining momentum. And they were thinking hard about how to create win-win situations for both local workers and the environment.

So what does this mean for how New Zealand engages with the region? Aside from the environmental benefits of building a more sustainable economy, is there an opportunity for New Zealand to take a global leadership role? We know that New Zealand’s clean, green image has taken a knock in the last few years. We also know that our food and beverage exports – especially to Asia - rely heavily on New Zealand’s reputation as a trusted source of safe and clean products.

At the Foundation, we know through our Leadership Network that the next generation of New Zealand leaders are individually committed to sustainability. Sure, sustainability is the ‘right thing’ to do, but should our policy makers also be framing it as a smart way for New Zealand to show leadership in the coming decades?

If so, then Asia and these Southeast Asian entrepreneurs can be part of the New Zealand story.

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation