The road to market is a rocky one for food entrepreneurs

Big-food companies dominate our supermarket shopping trollies and have significant sway over where their items are positioned, making it incredibly hard for small or local companies to make traction.

The big-food companies are also smart; they know consumers want to support artisan products so will replicate and undercut, or buy-up those artisan companies, to maintain profitability.

For us as consumers, keeping track of what we buy is an ongoing battle.

In a non-food example for me, a couple of weeks ago I was buying shampoo and conditioner and wanted to stay away from the big brands — Pantene, Sunsilk and the like.

I bought a new brand called ‘‘Love Beauty and Planet’’, the implication being that in doing so I was making myself beautiful while looking after the planet — clearly an aspirational purchase!

The packaging looked quite clunky — a bit homemade if you like. Sulphate-free and infused with coconut oil and ylang ylang, the earth goddess look was practically guaranteed!

Imagine my horror when I got home and read the fine print to realise that ‘‘Love Beauty and Planet’’ was not the artisan, locally made product of my imagination but an excellent exercise in branding from global giant, Unilever.

It’s an uphill battle for entrepreneurs when faced with the Unilevers of this world. About a year ago, I came across my first ‘‘Chia Sisters’’ beverage in a cafe. It was absolutely delicious and I vowed to find out more.

For those of you who have never heard of them, Florence and Chloe Van Dyke are sisters who developed a nutritional drink in response to the high sugar commercial options available to the athletes in their family.

Their carbon-zero drinks come in a range of flavours and are packed with antioxidants, prebiotics and micronutrients. They also include ‘‘hydrated chia seeds’’ to add nutritional and textural value.

The Chia Sisters are doing well and have been acknowledged by Forbes as some of the most notable entrepreneurs under the age of 30 in Asia. They have a great product, a great story and global exposure — one would think they had it made and could walk their products into any setting. Yet in New Zealand, they are struggling to gain traction across retail sectors, cafes, movie theatres, supermarkets and other enterprises because of exclusivity, or semi-exclusivity clauses; these organisations sign with the big-beverage companies like Coco Cola and Pepsi owner, Frucor. In an interview with Radio New Zealand recorded in October last year, Florence Van Dyke candidly discussed the challenges they had had getting into organisations such as Coffee Culture, Air New Zealand and even the University of Otago which had buying policies which stymied local, innovative companies.

It is a heartbreaking battle and this type of story is echoed by entrepreneurs and producers all over the world. If you have time, take half an hour to watch the wonderful short film made by New Zealand beverage company Karma Cola (available on its website). In it, co-founder Simon Coley describes the journey he has been on to source cola nuts from a village in Sierra Leone.

He notes that Coca-Cola has been sourcing cola nuts from villages throughout African nations for generations, and the people from those villages have not prospered in return.

Karma Cola is in partnership with the Sierra Leone villagers boots-and-all, ensuring they prosper from its product’s success — the movie will bring a tear to your eye.

As consumers, we should support the Chia Sisters and the Karma Colas of this world, but the fact of who controls the supply chain means doing so is often a real challenge.

From an agricultural perspective, more and more farmers are seeking to challenge the status quo and own their relationship with consumers, cutting out the middle-men — but it’s also a tough road.

A friend of mine, Jim Wilkes, the founder of premium red-meat company Triple Nine Farms, investigated importing mobile abattoirs from Sweden to New Zealand so animals would not be stuck in transport trucks for hours and slaughtered many kilometres from source.

What sounded like a great idea then became stymied by regulatory hurdles from MPI and others. I get that regulations are in place to protect consumers and exclusivity agreements often work for retailers. It’s hard to point a finger at what to fix first.

What I do know, is that on-the-ground consumers like myself want access to products from local entrepreneurs.

We need to shine the spotlight on our food and beverage industry in order to get what we want, rather than what Unilever wants, and we have to ask the regulators to as well.

■ Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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