He lived and worked in China for 18 years and now runs an organisation to help regional Queensland’s economic development, particularly for the food and agriculture sector. Through his role as CEO at Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise (TSBE) and its Food Leaders Australia (FLA) initiative, Dr Ben Lyons shares some insights for cracking the Chinese market.

Q: Asia is often described as a major market opportunity for Australia’s food and agriculture. But what does Asia think of Australia?

Brand Australia in Asia, and perhaps wider, has never been stronger in terms of being a premium food brand and for our ability to produce a good quantity of high quality food consistently. 

There’s been a lot of hard work in a lot of different product areas. Beef is one of the best examples of how we have diversified and improved our product over the last 15-20 years via genetics and good marketing. I think wine is another great example of Australia excelling on the world stage, and in the future I think we can move into areas such as horticulture.

Q: What does the Asian marketplace, and more specifically, China, want from Australian food? 

Asia is a big place, so there are a few different viewpoints and angles. Countries like Japan and Korea are strong performers for us in the red meat and wine markets.

I think China is our biggest opportunity – we have a lot of visibility in China, particularly in the offline and online retail space.

The online retail space for perishables is still a little challenging, although for long-shelf life products it is a lot easier. There is also a really fierce desire for the very successful online shopping retail platforms to move into the perishables space. It would be interesting to look at the food service market in a space like China and Asia more broadly – those are probably some of the easier wins for food and food production companies.

Q: If I own a small food business and I’m interested in exporting my product to China, what should I do first? 

Ask yourself the big question – Even though there is a lot of interest around Asia and China, it’s not for everyone. You need to ask yourself the question of whether it’s for your business or not, and to answer that question you really need to go over there and see what the market looks like.

There needs to be a level of foresight in order to reach these markets. Ask your business where it wants to be in five years time, and if export is a part of that five-year vision you should start now.

Be informed – Leverage the great transparency that technology now provides, such as e-commerce platforms, and ultimately get to know the end consumer easier.

Never before has there been so much information available to help you to make a more informed decision about an export venture.

In terms of activating a small business and getting into the market there are still some challenges around payment terms, terms of trade, and critical mass of supply. I would say however that it has become, in the last 10-15 years, and particularly in the last five years, increasingly easier for a small business get into this market. It all comes down to ambition and vision. 

Only fools rush in – Don’t put your business at risk by putting all your eggs in one basket. Diversify your business. There are still sovereign risk issues with some countries like China and there is still some work in terms of getting the trade issues right. You can eat up a lot of time and have no income if you don’t do it smart and utilise all the tools that are available to you.

Q: How does the Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise’s Food Leaders Australia initiative help Australians take advantage of global opportunities?

A: FLA and TBSE have a presence in Shanghai, and we are one of the only regions in Australia to do so. Mostly this kind of thing is done at a state or national level. We also have a partnership office in Beijing within the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences which helps us connect with the market in China.

China is our largest and fastest growing market and it will also be our largest beef market within a couple of years. We link that capability by working at an enterprise level in terms of membership in strategies that look at investigating and activating company export development programs, working hand-in-hand with those companies.

Dr Ben Lyons has a PhD in Economics (UQ) and is an alumni of the Australia-China Council of Business Scholar program.  Hailing from south-western Queensland, Dr Lyons carries a diverse knowledge base and experience of the Chinese market having worked in Nanjin, Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. TBSE has recently transitioned from its traditional regional economic development work in the food and agriculture space into the Food Leaders Australia initiative.