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Australian farmers floored by Chinese business opportunities

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YOUTUBE: Landline: Australian farmers in China

A delegation of 240 farmers and food manufacturers from Toowoomba in south-east Queensland made history in 2016, when they visited China to learn how to do business with Australia's biggest trading partner.

"Mind-blowing" and "overwhelming" were just two of the typical reactions from Australian farmers who toured the sprawling Alibaba campus at Hangzhou, a two hour drive from Shanghai.

"I didn't realise that there was such an ecommerce business anywhere in the world," says orchardist Rosie Savio.

"It was fascinating to understand that sort of supply chain and the volume of transactions that happen in this country," says macadamia nut grower Josh Gadischke.

Delegates enjoyed a champagne breakfast in Toowomba before they flew to Shanghai.
Delegates enjoyed a champagne breakfast in Toowomba before they flew to Shanghai.

ABC: Pip Courtney

Rosie and Josh were members of a delegation of 240 farmers and food manufacturers who made history late last year when they flew out of Toowoomba in south-east Queensland.

The largest private trade delegation in Australian history was organised so farmers and agribusiness professionals from the productive farming region could learn how to do business with Australia's biggest trading partner.

"You'll never get anything done unless you go and see it yourself," says tour organiser Ben Lyons.

"You've got to go and shake the hand of a Chinese person and work out what they're after, it all works on a personal basis there, so it's really important."

- Ben Lyons

Delegates visited beef importers, freight handlers, ports and ecommerce operations, including global online juggernaut Alibaba.

With 10 million merchants selling to 400 million consumers, Alibaba has cornered 75 per cent of China's ecommerce trade, and 1,300 Australian businesses already use it to sell beef, fresh milk, honey, nuts, infant formula and vitamins.

Last year, during the shopping frenzy known as Singles Day, Alibaba did a staggering US$17.79 billion in sales in 24 hours.

"The way they can get things out in such a hurry and the sheer volume of people they're serving was mind-boggling," says Rosie.

Australian farmers found Alibaba's sprawling Hangzhou campus "mind-blowing" and "overwhelming".
Australian farmers found Alibaba's sprawling Hangzhou campus "mind-blowing" and "overwhelming".

ABC: Pip Courtney

Demand for Australian produce was clear at online food retailer G-Shop which imports premium produce from around the world including Australian oysters, wagyu beef and fresh milk.

In one day G-Shop sold 16 tonnes of Australian single-serve steaks through Alibaba.

G-Shop CEO Zhen Sun wants to stock more clean, green, safe Australian food.

"We welcome all Australian companies with food products to come to us to find opportunity and we will do our best to help them to do the Chinese market," he says.

G-Shop CEO Zhen Sun with some Australian wagyu beef.
G-Shop CEO Zhen Sun with some Australian wagyu beef.

ABC: Craig Zonca

China and consumer behaviour experts warned delegates Chinese consumers were vastly different to Australians and what works in Australia won't necessarily work in China.

Austrade's Henry Wang said it's critical they grasp the extraordinary rise of ecommerce in China.

"This is really a game changer," he says.

"In the last year 413 million online consumers spent more than $750 billion online alone."

- Henry Wang

Brand consultant Matthew McKenzie told the Australians social media is everything "in phone-obsessed click-and-share China".

"WeChat is a phenomenon that's taken China by storm and it will continue to become more and more important," he says.

Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, but China has its own versions; Weibo (297 million active users) and WeChat (864 million active users), and both are used extensively by companies to build brands and by consumers to make purchasing decisions.

"This will not go away, social commerce will be getting bigger and bigger and bigger," China-based PR consultant Darren Burns says.

"In the future all commerce will be social."

- Darren Burns

Queensland nut producer Stahmann Farms has been exporting to China for 18 months.

It quickly realised if it wanted to break into the market it had to have a social media and online presence.

"[In China] they don't buy anything unless they have done some form of research and that research is two and three second bites back into their own social media network or a network they trust," says sales manager Andrew Waddell.

Stahmann Farms now has a full time Mandarin-speaking staffer based at its head office in Toowoomba who uploads a dozen pieces of content onto WeChat and Weibo every day.

"Sally is the connection between a young consumer and our farm," he says.

"Sally puts pictures of our tractors, trees, irrigation and our water next to a packet of finished retail goods and interviews staff, creating heroes in our own business."

- Andrew Waddell

Sally Fang looks after Stahmann Farms' presence on Chinese social media sites WeChat and Weibo.
Sally Fang looks after Stahmann Farms' presence on Chinese social media sites WeChat and Weibo.

ABC: Pip Courtney

The demand for Australian produce and the premium prices China's increasingly wealthy middle class are prepared to pay excited many on the trip but it frustrated others who, despite the free trade agreement signed just over a year ago, remain locked out of China.

Vegetable grower Richard Gorman says the Australian government isn't doing enough to get access for more fruits and vegetables.

"Cherries, citrus, beef, fresh milk they're all in there but for us in the world of vegetables we can't actually send anything fresh there at the moment, so we need to our political leaders to ask for it.

"The trade deal's there and they've done a great job, now it's about making sure we've got the protocols that allow us to actually trade."

If you missed Landline's Window on China special on Australia Plus TV see the stories on their website.

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