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TechWeek 2018

TechWeek 2018 – 10 Billion Mouths, held last month in Tauranga was my first event as Cucumber’s CEO and my first glimpse into NZ’s Horticulture Industry. The event was promoted as “NZ agritech innovators exploring new ways to feed the world.”

The opportunity to explore the industry and meet colleagues right in my own backyard was certainly convenient. The first thing that became apparent is that NZ agritech is a buzz of excitement. There was a myriad of attendees representing many sectors of the industry including growers, packhouses, investors, robotics and drone manufacturers, software companies, academia, and of course consultants. I met people from the UK, Australia, and the US, as well the usual suspects from local companies. I met students, start-up entrepreneurs, and seasoned professionals.

The sessions were interesting and informative, and some downright entertaining. I’m impressed with the passion of those who are in the pursuit of innovation. I’m equally impressed with the ambitious growth goals of the industry and grower associations. I learned the history of the kiwi fruit, the challenges of growing avocados, and the grading parameters of apples. I understand the challenges and implications of labour shortages. I’m better acquainted with the pain points of getting fruit from producer to consumer (tree to table). I recognise the importance of creating a brand and protecting it. I got a good idea of what companies are focusing on, and most importantly, what they are not. I also saw a glimpse of friction between conventional and industrialised orchard management, and the beginning of the debate - which I’m certain will soon escalate - between animal-based versus plant-based (alt-protein) food systems. To some degree, I also comprehend were investors are betting on what they hope is the next unicorn.

The event, however, for me was a little disappointing when it came to it actually living up to its theme and a higher purpose of feeding 10 billion people. In my mind, I’d thought the event was more about using technology to feed more people. Innovation isn’t delivered by technology alone, especially if its sole purpose is to replace people.

Innovation applied across the entire food system which enables humans to perform at a higher and more constructive level, and in the process adding value that results in feeding more people seems more aligned with the goal of 10 billion mouths.

What I was hoping for, and intrigued about learning more about was:

•  If there is a plan for ensuring food security for NZ and other countries that are in need of one gets implemented;
•  How we can change as much of 40% of what is grown never reaching the consumer;
•  The need for organisations to achieve a triple bottom line and focus more on sustainability;
•  The impacts of climate change and environmental risks to food systems;
•  How we avoid the potential of creating even greater inequalities of healthy and affordable food options with future food systems;
•  A discussion about the importance of preserving human dignity as we alter the journey from tree to table.

I recognise that the event was not a World Bank and or United Nations event. The event was for local and regional companies to come together as a community to share their innovations and ideas, and to promote NZ agritech. But as we all aim our business goals, I think it’s vital that we actually think about 10 billion mouths to feed and what we’re collectively doing as a community to address the very real problems that the world is facing. Reports abound with statistics on how imminent severe food shortages are. I want all companies to achieve great success and to introduce amazing innovations, after all that’s progress. But most importantly, I want our work to make a mark on those who need it most, and from us in the humble Bay of Plenty to help create a World of Plenty.