First Nations trade and investment – getting the fundamentals right

By Sarah Leary

Next week is shaping up to be a significant one for First Nations exporters, suppliers and entrepreneurs across Australia, including those from Western Australia.

First Nations trade and investment will soon feature as a standalone agenda item when Australia’s Ministerial Council on Trade and Investment come together on ancient Whadjuk Noongar Country on 10 April.  

The Ministerial Council reports to National Cabinet, is chaired by the Minister for Trade and Tourism and brings together representatives from each State and Territory with responsibility for trade and investment matters.

Placing First Nations trade and investment as a standalone agenda item at this gathering of Australia’s top “tradies” is significant. It is an acknowledgement by governments at all levels that First Nation businesses occupy an important place in Australia’s national trade and investment story.

Australia’s Indigenous business sector has significant commercial value in its own right. The growth of the sector is neither symbolic, niche or “cottage.”

Let’s look at what the data is telling us.

The First Nations business sector is growing at a pace of around 4 per cent per year bringing in a total of at least $A4.9 billion to the Australian economy. This far surpasses the annual revenue of Australia’s beer industry – and does not factor in the economic, social and cultural benefits that Australia’s burgeoning First Nations investment and start-up ecosystem is facilitating.

On the subject of start-ups, here’s another great story to celebrate. This week also marks the conclusion of a leading First Nations entrepreneur pre-accelerator program in Sydney, which will showcase 40 emerging First Nations businesses making a positive impact on the Australian economy.

An impressive 19 out of 40 participants in this Citi bank and Minderoo Foundation backed entrepreneurship scheme hail from Western Australia, including 4 out of 10 finalists.  This adds to an expanding Western Australian aboriginal business sector with 350 Indigenous companies are registered.

Prior to the pandemic, Australia’s First Nations business sector was growing at 12.5 per cent – faster than Australia’s SME sector.

Genuine commercial opportunities exist to grow and scale the number of Indigenous businesses in Australia, across all regions and sectors, and particularly among those seeking to expand internationally.

Attractive incentives are also playing a role in driving his business expansion. 

Preferential procurement policies, First Nations-specific business development programs as well as new financial products and services means that it has never been a better time for a First Nations entrepreneur or business owner to be thinking – and planning – big.

So, with all this positive commercial growth and policy leadership – is there much left for Trade Ministers to discuss?  What should policy makers do next?

Here are a few ideas we are hearing from the Perth USAsia community.

For a start, there is currently no national approach – or requirement – for mandating the inclusion of First Nations companies in international trade missions led by State and Territory Governments – or indeed the Commonwealth Government.  This issue is worth examining.

Secondly, there is currently no annual process – or funding bucket – available to pitch, fund and deliver First Nations trade missions internationally.

Trade missions are crucial for any export-orientated business seeking to build in-country relationships, match suppliers with buyers, or scope emerging opportunities, trends and innovations in emerging or established markets.

Currently, First Nations trade missions must package up commercially- orientated international trade missions as falling under the banner of “creative industries” to attract Commonwealth funding support.

While the First Nations creative economy is compelling is its own right – it is also just one corner of a much broader trade and economic ecosystem where First Nations businesses deserve to thrive internationally.

This disconnect  issue is worth examining because Australia’s First Nations Trade and Investment landscape is a much broader growth market than the creative arts. It is teeming with activity in diverse sectors such as technology, artificial intelligence, health, engineering, construction, design, education, tourism, clean energy, and much more.

Thirdly, let’s look at mainstreaming First Nations perspectives and co-design.

From Aotearoa New Zealand, to Victoria, Canberra and the US, well intentioned governments appear to be embracing a specific form of First Nations-to-First Nations trade exchange.

While promoting Indigenous-to-Indigenous trade is notable – and is rich in shared history and two-way learnings – the underlying rationale and objectives for promoting these types of trade missions – requires careful analysis.

Despite these symbolic benefits, embedding First Nations companies into the regular business of Australia’s annual calendar of trade missions and trade policy and negotiation frameworks should be Australia’s first priority.

Trade missions and visits should be based on commercial objectives and the unique business-matching needs of their participants.  

Since 2022, Australian governments at all levels have promoted international trade visits that connect Australian First Nations companies with their Māori and Native American counterparts. Why are these markets selected over others? Where are the First Nations trade missions to growth markets in India, Indonesia and Vietnam? Where is the careful business matching to connect Australian First Nations suppliers with interested buyers or partners? Are we designing trade missions with the right assumptions?

A useful starting point in addressing these curiosities is in bringing choice, listening and collaboration to the forefront of how governments at all levels work with First Nations companies seeking to export their goods or services.

First Nations companies should be in the driving seat of deciding their priority markets – and in advising government “tradies” on how they can best address their business-matching needs.

While First Nations exporters have unique knowledge and history to share, as well as rich connections with country, they are also no different to non-Indigenous traders. If you look at their business plans, it is clear First Nations companies want to foster relationships with non-Aboriginal businesses to fuel their business growth and to participate fully in the global trade economy.

Emphasising Indigenous-to-Indigenous trade does have value, but it needs to be balanced carefully against the growing market demand for commercially orientated trade matching services from First Nations companies.

If promoting Indigenous-to-Indigenous trade is to be the mainstay of Australia’s approach, then we risk confining First Nations businesses to the margins of the trade and investment landscape – in policy and practice.  

This comes at a time when many trade and investment officials are seeking to adopt best practice in their First Nations engagement. So there has never been a better time to get the fundamentals right.

The growth data is compelling, both culturally and commercially. First Nations exporters deserve to sit at Australia’s top trade table, and to be treated equally.

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