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Study of Agribusiness Booming At Ara

In a world where COVID might still be laying waste to holiday plans and careers on the stage, Ara Institute of Canterbury Ltd is doing its best to prepare people for a new post-COVID economy – and get them onboard with rising synergies between state-of-the art tech and primary industries.

In recent months there has also been much discussion about industries globally that have taken a harder hit than most during the COVID-19 emergency. Tourism, retail and hospitality have all been featured in the media as significantly impacted by anti-COVID measures, but it’s expected that ‘tech’ ventures associated with healthcare, food and agribusiness will rebound quickly, and Ara provides learners with multiple avenues into the high-tech sector.  Healthcare has also been identified as crucial, with a growing need for qualified professionals across almost every aspect of the sector, amid a growing alignment with next-generation digital innovations.

A recent survey of the Canterbury region also identified a shortage in agribusiness skills – another area in which Ara is able to provide crucial training.

In fact, at Ara, the Zealand Diploma of Agribusiness Management is booming, with a nearly 400-percent as of June in year-to-date applications from 2020. This astonishing increase may be spurred by the advent of the Trades Training & Apprenticeship fees-free scheme (TTAF), which covers the qualification. In a recent TEC post, Minister Chris Hipkins said “More than 17,000 learners, compared to about 12,500 previously, have also begun TTAF programmes in industries critical to our economic recovery.”

There is however a growing awareness of the importance of agribusiness to the economy and a growing shortage of workers may underlie the shift. In a February 2021 Farming Online article, it was claimed “Agribusiness has not only defied the widespread economic malaise caused by coronavirus in 2020, for many in the farm sector the pandemic year was great for business. Rural job vacancies have also continued opening as the agricultural economy's momentum powers on. Demand for permanent staff has been running red hot when compared with the mainstream employment market...”


Mehdi Asgarkhani, Academic Manager of the Department of Business and Digital Technologies at Ara, says “I have to admit that I actually inherited this program from a predecessor, and when we formed what was then the new department, I felt like I had to gain some more understanding of the programme. I put a lot of time into understanding more about the programme, and enjoyed my conversations with the team.”

Agribusiness combines a lot of different areas of knowledge, with successful managers needing a firm grasp of everything from finance to land and stock management. Also very important are environmental sustainability and the legal framework supporting it. The Diploma, which is delivered by Ara in partnership with the Primary ITO, is designed to enable students to make sound, informed business decisions, manage teams effectively and keep on a stable financial trajectory.  

The programme content is delivered to students via ‘blended’ methodology that involves workshops and online learning, explores employment and HR strategies; budgets and cash flow forecasts as well as tax systems; asset management, environmental management and sustainability practices; nutrient budgeting for Land Management units and even transfer and succession approaches.

The team that delivers the programme works understand both the sector and the environment, and work closely with not only their students but also Primary ITO to ensure successful outcomes for the ITO and the students. Mehdi says “The dedicated and passionate teaching team plays a significant role in the program's success. They look for opportunities on an ongoing basis to make students’ learning journey an enjoyable and memorable experience.”

While the programme has been clearly growing in popularity, Mehdi still sees an opportunity to refine and improve the offering, which will involve plans for better use of delivery technology to make it more accessible to a wider group of learners. “I think what is really important for us is to explore how we can raise awareness, identify opportunities as to how we can do things differently and better, to carry on making sure that it continues to experience success. You can afford to think about new delivery techniques, and different approaches.”

This process may well lead to identifying new synergies between technology and agriculture – a fertile new sector known as ‘agritech’. In a 2020 publication by MBIE, it was said that “… our strong food and fibre sector and expertise in this area represents an opportunity to grow the agritech sector as an economic driver in its own right, particularly as an export industry. This is the primary reason why the sector has been selected as a priority area under the Government’s refocused industry policy.” Happily, Mehdi is primarily an IT expert, working within Ara’s Business and Digital Technologies Department. In a joint 2014 conference paper, he says “Technology solutions, Information Technology (IT) in particular has transformed the ways in which various industries operate. The use of technology has enabled organizations to develop more effective approaches to design, develop and provide products and services. This has resulted in increasing dependence of organizations on IT solutions…”


Nigel Young, Head of the Department, agrees, saying “In a way, all modern businesses are having to become ‘tech businesses’, relying on the advancements and efficiencies in technology to stay successful in an increasingly competitive market place. The growth of the agribusiness market along with the emergence of agritech is more than just a coincidence, and the team that deliver the programme are adept at using technology to engage a wide and varied audience across the South Island.”

Within the agritech field, Ara is already home to several innovations, with inventive startups based at Te Ōhaka – Centre for Growth and Innovation that are exploring solutions for automated fruit picking and biochemical water purification. Te Ōhaka is a partnership between Ara, the Ministry of Awesome and ChristchurchNZ, and has become a place where industry, startups and learners come together in a process where student degree projects are matched with the needs of start-up companies.  So, for Ara students – including agribusiness learners - there are many opportunities to explore the merger between IT and agriculture.

“I think we can get a lot smarter in the way that we deliver the contents and knowledge. And we can maybe take it further in terms of disruption; we can find ways to connect what we’re doing with totally different areas like the tech sector. The agriculture and health sectors have both benefited significantly from new technology over the last four or five years. And the pressure is on in terms of the mobility of different groups of people, because of COVID, so there’s an impetus to quickly find solutions to human labour shortages. I'm very excited about opportunities that are out there” says Mehdi.