It was mid January when Sirma Karapeeva was named as the Meat Industry Association’s new chief executive.
Covid-19 had been identified in China the previous month but no one had any idea what an impact it would have on global health and economies.
For the New Zealand meat industry the effects were beginning to bite by late January with the shutdown of the Chinese market, which went into a big dive in February.
China’s logistical and distribution shutdown limited the capacity to offload NZ’s primary exports at ports while at the same time cold store availability was limited, the effective result a severe restriction on getting products to consumers.
That, on top of the restaurant trade shutting, had a dramatic effect on supplying what in recent years has become an increasingly significant export market, especially during the last 12 months as a result of African swine fever, which devastated China’s pig population, forcing consumers to look elsewhere for protein.
Fortunately, Karapeeva says, the NZ meat industry had pursued a policy of diversifying its markets to more than 120 worldwide so when China was no longer a viable option companies redirect products to other countries, with beef exports increasing to places like the United States and Taiwan and sheep meat being redirected to Britain and Malaysia.
Now China is coming back online she is optimistic the market can get back on track as countries like the US are now being hit themselves, resulting in significant disruption.
“We are waiting to see how that is going to play out. It’s coming in waves.”
It’s a long way for someone originally from southeastern Europe who spent some of her formative years in Africa.
Karapeeva was born in Bulgaria. She then lived in Tanzania and later Zimbabwe where her architect mother was involved in building medical storage facilities, hospitals and clinics.
When it became time to consider university most of her friends were going to South Africa but Karapeeva was looking for more of an overseas experience.
She has a Danish half-brother so moved to Copenhagen where, after learning Danish, she took courses in social and political systems and current affairs.
While living in Denmark Karapeeva met New Zealanders travelling on a gap year and they told her about universities here.
Having already developed an interest in international business relations she heard Massey University offered a business studies degree with a focus on international business and business law.
“Massey had a very good system set up for international students and was very proactive after I got in touch.”
By the time she left Palmerston North in 1989 Karapeeva had a first class honours degree in her chosen field.
At the Ministry of Economic Development she progressed from graduate policy analyst to its regulatory policy team then its trade environment team, where she was involved in a variety of trade negotiations and free trade deals, including with China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
From there she moved to the Primary Industries Ministry, taking with her valuable trade negotiation knowledge and experience.
She says it was a natural progression, providing a chance to dive more deeply into issues affecting the primary sector, the core foundation of the NZ economy.
In today’s uncertain times Karapeeva says collaboration between different parts of the primary sector is more important than ever.
“It’s a no-brainer. We have to find a way to make one plus one equal three.”
That involves taking the story from the farm gate and using the input of organisations like Beef + Lamb and DairyNZ.
“There are shared interests there. It’s a symbiotic relationship and one is not the same without the other.
“We need to position the sector as a whole.”
A key focus for the MIA is working closely with Beef + Lamb to ensure the sector’s story is understood by not only the public but also the Government.
She says the meat industry has a large manufacturing component to it, which is heavily regulated across a variety of areas, including education and training and environmental impact so it’s important to work closely with the Government on all those issues.
That means ensuring regulations are fit for purpose, based on science but with enough flexibility for the industry to get on and do what it needs to for the economy.
On a domestic level Karapeeva recognises many regions have been grappling with drought so there is real pressure on farmers wanting to shift stock with animal welfare a big concern.
She says meat companies are doing their best to optimise stock throughput but strict operating protocols to control the spread of covid-19 have had a big impact on the number of people on processing chains.
Despite the challenges the industry is well placed to get through the testing times it is facing.
The diversified markets it has around the world will help match products to new customers with increased opportunities in retail markets a potential solution to uncertainty surrounding the food service industry.
Recent product development work focusing on shelf-life and packaging will help support that.
NZ’s trusted reputation as a supplier of high-quality, natural food product will also be important while marketing programmes will need to highlight food safety and its nutritional value and that it’s produced in line with high animal welfare standards.
As a country NZ needs to be mindful of other countries trying to protect their own primary sectors in what will be testing economic times for a while yet.
She says NZ has a longstanding commitment to fair and open trade, which must continue.
“If we see countries putting in place measures that distort the trade environment, that affect the flow of goods then we need to stand up and call it out.
“International trade rules must continue to operate.
“If we don’t call out moves against open trade and instead allow them to proliferate it will set us back and the recovery will take longer.”
And no one wants that.