Building Australia-Pacific Partnerships through Entrepreneurship
On Sunday November 10, 2019, Pacific Islander entrepreneurs and community leaders from Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu, descended upon Brisbane, to meet their Australian counterparts to attend the ICDP Pacific Connect Dialogue. The aim of this dialogue was to share and gain knowledge and networks in financial education. As it was my first time, I was hoping to gain an insight into the challenges that Pacific entrepreneurs face in sourcing financial resources, so that I could assist with my financial expertise to offer some advice for their business ventures. I also hoped to learn from their experiences as existing business owners as I was in the conceptual stages of my own business ideas.
We were welcomed by the CEO of ICDP, Simone Pensko, and the Project Manager, Tina Briggs. Ms Pensko concluded her informal welcome speech with: “So grab a bite, have a drink and network and learn about each of your work because you on;y have 48 hours to do so.” Coming from a public sector background, I was used to week-long foreign government meetings, and even with that longer time period, I didn’t normally get to network with as many people as I wanted to; I wondered how I would be able to meet over 20 participants in this shorter time frame.
Over the course of the evening, I met Thomas from Australia who had started a number of business ventures, one of which was building entrepreneurial hubs for Indigenous start-ups to work from. We discussed the challenges of obtaining government support to fund start-up programs and to support them to scale by employing their services in government services. From this conversation it became apparent to me that this was a common issue among youth from both Australia and the Pacific Islands. I also met Dannicah and James who were involved in implementing the Global Shapers chapter in Samoa. Global Shapers is an international organisation that aims to empower youth from over 150 countries to implement community projects. We shared experiences about the importance of equipping Pacific people with the skills and mindset to perceive the power of technology and digitisation of services so that they would be ready to maximise the benefits that it could provide in connecting all of us to the outside world.
The following day, we attended the Financial Literacy Masterclass. We burst through the corridors of Queensland Parliament House in true Pacific style with loud laughter and chatter. We got to hear the experiences of a former participant of the ICDP Dialogue, the founder of Pacific Finds, Pauline Benson. Pacific Finds provides an online e-commerce platform so that the Islander entrepreneurs can reach their buyers more quickly. Pauline shared that initially her business began as Fiji Finds and focused only on the Fijian market. However, after she attended one of the Dialogues in Sydney, she received valuable feedback and connected with other Pacific islanders who also knew local sellers in their home countries that would benefit from this service, thereby expanding her market and realising that it should be renamed to Pacific Finds. This further reiterated to myself and fellow participants the importance of expanding our networks by making valuable connections with the amazing people that we were fortunate be in the room with.
ICDP Ambassador, Andrew Carriline, began the Financial Literacy Masterclass by asking us to divide ourselves into sections of the room depending on what we perceived our financial literacy levels were. Those of us that had expertise in accounting / finance were asked to separate into groups with participants who were novices in this area. The presentation, activities and conversations that followed with those whom I was assisting in my group, challenged me to think of the simplest explanation of financial concepts without using the jargon we have in the financial world. I was able to offer some book-keeping advice to Susan from the Solomon Islands who was involved in exporting coffee. I learnt so much from her about the process of growing and exporting coffee beans and even got to sample some free chocolate that was made from her coffee beans!
We also learnt about the other ways in which businesses can obtain funding; through venture capitalists, crowd-funding and angel investors. This made me excited for the inaugural Start-Up Convention that was to be hosted in Port Moresby the following week where venture capitalists were to be present at the pitching event for the first time. However, this was still new for many of us in the room because this form of funding is currently non-existent in the Pacific financial ecosystem. Participants explained how there was difficulty in obtaining loans from banks because there was a lot of paperwork that required financial statements and a proven track record before loans could be approved. PJ from Australia emphasised the importance of maintaining financial statements even when vying for funding from venture capitalists, and advised that international organisations have start-up funding for areas that targeted a specific social problem or demographics, for example, women in agriculture in the Pacific.
At the networking dinner we heard from Peta Ellis, Co-founder of Tribe Global, whose business was involved in building start-up ecosystems. She highlighted to us that developing connections with each other on a personal level was more important than viewing everyone as merely a potential business partner. This resonated strongly amongst us as the Pacific way was always about connecting with people.
It made we realise that often, we take a glass-half-full view because of all the challenges we face in conducting business in the Pacific. But we don’t realise that one of the most important soft skills that an entrepreneur should develop is the ability to connect and understand their customers and that is a skill that is already a way of life for us.
At the end of the second day, I was delighted that I was one step closer in understanding the challenges of Pacific entrepreneurs in improving their financial literacy skills, however the best part was realising the endless opportunities that I could leverage from if I collaborated with various people in the room. Although I was tired, there was too much inspiration around me just to go to bed without tweaking my lean canvas of one of my business ideas a bit more.
Day three was the final chance for us to network. We began it with a Grant Writing Workshop that was facilitated by Dr Anna Blackman of Insight Collective Group. Her presentation and templates allowed us to see the importance of knowing the objective of the grant provider: aligning their objects with our specific business need and providing a financial forecast of how this grant would be used to add value to our business. Abigail and James from Fiji and Solomon Islands respectively, also elaborated on the information required by donor agencies that offered grants to small businesses in the Pacific.
The Dialogue concluded with us visiting a co-working space of start-ups in Brisbane called Fishburners. We were inspired by the various start-ups that we witnessed hard at work and all the positive quotes that the walls were covered in. We were also told that the hub was named after the supply ship that used to supply goods to Australia in 1778. I found this to be a fitting end to this dialogue because in a way, all 20 plus participants were mini Fishburner vessels that were sailing out in the hopes of collecting as much supplies of ideas, knowledge and networks to take back home to supply our respective island nations. The seas will be rough, but in the words of Mark Zuckerberg: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk”. So we live to sail through more risks that await us, as we sail back home in the opean seas but look out for one another through the connections we made at the ICDP Dialogue on Financial Education to ensure we arrive at our respective destinations. On another note, I am also happy to say that I managed to interact with all the participants and now I hope to use the first 48 hours in my government meetings to do the same, as I believe it is a powerful approach to connect without all the professional titles and formalities.
Grace is a Technical Team Member at the Auditor General’s Office, Government of Papua New Guinea. She is passionate about how Pacific nations can collectively overcome challenges faced by women in business. As a Chevening Scholar, Grace has been researching ways in which digital banking services can be improved / utilised using current technology to enable people in the Pacific to gain access to basic financial services.