Market-led industry poised for even faster growth

Article written by Food NI CEO Michele Shirlow 

It’s great to see agri-food recognised as one of the six sectors in the draft economic plan, Economy 2030, with the potential for world-class performance. It’s still our biggest manufacturing industry and one which has the ability to continue to compete successfully abroad through a sharp focus on innovation particularly in terms of smart products for market opportunities developing in national and international markets.

Overall, it’s an industry driven by the market and particularly shoppers, an industry that’s well used to coming up with fresh ideas for retailers, often on a seasonal basis, and an industry that works closely with retailers in creating solutions for their requirements.

micheleFew other industries here face such pressure to deliver new products offering consistently high quality, outstanding taste, great value for money, especially at this time of austerity, and delivered on time, every time.
We certainly have a number of established world-class companies involved in food and drink exports to upwards of 60 countries worldwide and we clearly need to encourage and support a great many others, especially the younger businesses, to start looking for sales outside Northern Ireland. It’s an industry that can grow exports fast.

We are fortunate in having some excellent smaller firms, inspirational role models, which are now exporting successfully and, above, all profitably. Others interested in business abroad could learn a great deal from their example.

Food NI is well positioned to broker relationships between established smaller exporters and those keen to follow their example. For instance, we recently brought three successful chocolatiers from the influential Academy of Chocolate to Northern Ireland to advise our burgeoning artisan chocolate sector here on how best to improve performance and overall competitiveness. We’d like to see more developing a presence in Britain in the high-end niche markets. I am confident that a number will during 2017.

In the past, we’ve also introduced our cider processors to a team of experts from Britain. As a result of visits here by experts that we’ve hosted, there’s a now a greater recognition of a key characteristic of our cider – its focus on pure apple juice rather than concentrates favoured by many cider markets in Britain.

And we’ve supported targeted initiatives for the bakery sector. In addition, we are proactively assisting smaller companies to increase awareness of their products particularly in Great Britain, still the most important market for our products – and likely to grow in even greater importance in the post-Brexit era – through the media contacts we’ve cultivated before during and since Year of Food and Drink.

Food NI, furthermore, is keen to work with other bodies on using our standing with entrepreneurial companies on addressing the productivity and skills issues also identified in the draft consultation paper. Interestingly, many food and drink companies are also harnessing expertise from other target sectors such as digital and creative technologies. They are among the most active on twitter and instagram.

Agri-food is probably the only one of the six industries pinpointed in the document with a reach across Northern Ireland and it is very well positioned to contribute very positively to the economic wellbeing of rural communities. It’s extremely important to acknowledge that food tourism, which is growing very rapidly, has a spin-off in terms of exports.

The spirit of the agri-food sector was clearly demonstrated in the Year of Food and Drink 2016, as the industry rose to the challenge in every art and part across the region. This demonstrated the exciting creativity and tremendous determination which is driving our food and drink industry from good to great.