Friday, July 1, 2022

Dubai Expo2020 a shop window during covid restrictions

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DESPITE its low profile at home, New Zealand’s world expo pavilion has been the shop front for exporters and a destination for over a million visitors since the Dubai World Expo kicked off in October.

New Zealand’s Expo2020 pavilion theme plays strongly on iwi values of Kaitiakitanga and protection, with the theme “care for people and place”, also featuring Tiaki, a NZ-themed restaurant, virtual tours and landscaping based around the Whanganui River.

Despite its low profile at home, New Zealand’s world expo pavilion has been the shop front for exporters and a destination for over a million visitors since the Dubai World Expo kicked off in October.

David Downs, chief executive of the NZ Story project, visited the expo mid-March as it approaches its final days to close on March 31.

The NZ Story is a NZ Trade and Enterprise initiative aimed to strengthen and build perceptions of NZ during the global pandemic.

He said as NZ continues to remain relatively isolated from the rest of the world by covid restrictions and limited flights, the $60 million pavilion has played an invaluable role in keeping the country’s profile up.

The expo has largely gone under the radar in NZ, with relatively little coverage partly due to the challenges of media getting back to NZ under covid restrictions, something only now changing as the expo nears its end.

Downs said NZ’s primary sector is well-represented at the expo, including the usual big players like Zespri, Fonterra and Comvita, with numerous smaller consumer-focused brands having some presence, if not staff, in attendance. He put the NZ pavilion in the top 10% of exhibitors in terms of quality.

The focus has also been strong on agritech innovation, with interest coming from the host country as it and its neighbours reassess their reliance on food supply chains during covid’s disruptions.

“The pandemic has shown countries just how vulnerable their food supply chain is. So interest in the likes of vertical farming is strong,” Downs said.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia undertook a national transformation project aimed to enhance animal and food production to meet local market needs. Foreign breeds, genetic improvement and climate-controlled environments have all featured in the initiative’s technology. Poultry production, for example, has almost doubled in the past decade.

But Downs cautioned while NZ is justifiably proud of its agritech innovations, the rest of the world appears to be moving faster “at 250mph compared to our 10mph”.

“The pace of change in these places is immense and hard to appreciate until you visit. We do risk being left behind in the opportunities it presents,” he said.

The competition includes the usual tech giants like Israel, but also less obvious countries in Eastern Europe.

“Technology around water use and recycling is a big one. You can get desalination plants the size of a suitcase, rice variants that will grow in salty water – covid has only accelerated the pace of change for all this technology,” he said.

A delegation of NZ agritech firms attended the expo last month, including Gallagher, LIC and Plant & Food Research.

Plant & Food tech has helped Emirates government agronomists work with date plantings in salt water.

“And they will take that tech and run with it very fast,” he said.

The NZ pavilion has been visited equally by trade officials, consumers from the Gulf region, politicians, and businesses.

Downs said feedback from business visitors has reinforced NZ Story’s own research, about some concerns over ability to enter and exit the country under covid regulations.

“News that we have a plan to open up the country has not made it out yet. Part of my job here has been to help reset people’s understanding of it. But everyone loves NZ, the brand is strong,” he said.

Access concerns also relate to airlines servicing NZ.

“I came up here on a 777 through Kuala Lumpur and it added four hours to the trip. We have issues around passenger airline capacity and therefore freight capacity for fresh and chilled products, it becomes almost impossible. It is a challenge for us to rebuild those widebody jet routes,” he said.

The NZ pavilion theme plays strongly on iwi values of Kaitiakitanga and protection, with the theme “care for people and place”, also featuring Tiaki, a NZ-themed restaurant, virtual tours and landscaping based around the Whanganui River.

“What I have also learnt is the value of combining culture with business, it’s important for many of our trade partners, something we do not do so much and something we have the opportunity to bridge the gap on,” he said.

He has noticed a high emphasis at the pavilions he has attended on “innovation” as a theme, something NZ also likes to claim.

“Some of the territory we like to stake out is not so defensible,” he said.

“If anything, what covid has shown us is that brand NZ is a huge asset, but not as nuanced and sophisticated as we may like it to be yet.”

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