Growing networks

Growing networks

Posted 19 November 2013

‘I’m always watching and learning. I’m always thinking what can we do next, how can we make things better’. — Ron Newchurch, ‘Cultivating Success’, Inspire issue five 2010.

Ron Newchurch is exhausted, and he couldn’t be happier. On a particularly cold morning at the Adelaide Produce Market, he has already been up for hours preparing to celebrate the launch of his new business venture. Although now physically spent, he is emotionally energised by the turnout of government ministers, local and national media, friends and extended family who have braved the cold—and a 6.00am start—to celebrate with him the realisation of a long-held dream.

‘There were a lot of people there for us this morning’, said Ron. ‘It was amazing and exciting...and I could feel that atmosphere. Everyone was smiling...and they really enjoyed what they saw’. What they saw was the official release of Matjarra, a product range of commercially branded fresh herbs and produce grown and harvested by Indigenous families and communities, and now available at select greengrocers and supermarkets across South Australia.

[L-R] Nigel Tripodi, Ron Newchurch and Juliet Giangregorio at the launch of the Matjarra product range.

[L-R] Nigel Tripodi, Ron Newchurch and Juliet Giangregorio at the launch of the Matjarra product range.

Although keen to begin our post-launch interview (and then get some sleep), Ron is awaiting the arrival of Juliet Giangregorio and Nigel Tripodi, the business partners and ‘kindred spirits’ with whom he has collaborated to make this day a reality.

The Matjarra product line is the manifestation of a shared vision by Ron, Juliet and Nigel, who established their company, Nunga Produce, as both a commercial enterprise and a way to encourage economic independence and sustainability among South Australia’s Indigenous families and communities.

The seed of that company was planted in 2005 on an equally cold morning at the Adelaide Produce Market when Ron negotiated his way through the busy market in search of an outlet for the herbs and vegetables he was growing on his Yorke Peninsula property. There he found Rainbow Fresh Direct, a business owned by Juliet’s parents—who supply produce to the South Australian market, and who agreed to trial Ron’s herbs for three months.

At around the same time, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations had approached Ron about using his market gardening knowledge and experience to train other Indigenous families and communities in regional South Australia, with a view to creating a local growers network. That network would require an outlet for its produce and Rainbow Fresh—which in turn needed to guarantee its own access to quality seasonal herbs and vegetables—was happy to be involved.

The mutually beneficial business relationship grew stronger, and so too did the personal friendship between Ron, Juliet, Nigel and their families. Nigel said: ‘When Ron first came to Rainbow Fresh with his herbs it was very simple; it just happened that he was Indigenous, and it was nothing more than friends doing business’. Over time, however, the three frequently found themselves discussing ideas for how horticulture—and the inherent understanding Indigenous Australians have of land—might be used to create positive social change within local communities. It was, they agree, a natural next step to go into business together.

Establishing Nunga Produce (‘Nunga’ being a term of self-reference for many of the Indigenous peoples of South Australia), Ron, Juliet and Nigel were able to take their brainstorming to a new level. ‘Juliet and I were discussing with Ron that he should be branding the produce [being supplied by the grower’s network] as Indigenous’, said Nigel. Out of those discussions arose the idea for the Matjarra range, which includes packs of fresh herbs, chillies and spring onions, as well as combinations of herbs matched to particular meats, seafood and cooking styles.

Having carved out individual roles at Nunga Produce (Ron is General Manager, Juliet is Sales and Distribution Manager, and Nigel is Production Manager), Juliet is excited about what she calls ‘a beautiful merger of knowledge and resources’. She said:

‘Ron’s background is the growing side of it, the mentoring and the networks he has in government and across the industry. Nigel and I understand the commercial [side of the] industry, and we have our distribution and marketing networks. And we worked out that between us there’s more than 70 years experience here’.

Despite, or perhaps even because of all that experience and passion, the new business partners occasionally butted heads over how best to turn the philosophy behind the Matjarra line into a commercial venture. ‘We’ve come up with some crazy ideas’, said Ron, ‘but it’s been fun going through that process together. Juliet is the most ideas-driven person; she is able to articulate all our ideas, and give them a reality...but sometimes we have heated debates’. All agree that mutual respect and a sense of humour has been the key to cooling those debates. Juliet said: ‘As husband and wife, Nigel and I talk business at home and when we disagree about something one of us will say, ‘I’m going to ring Ron’. And Ron always listens to my ideas and says, ‘Yeah, great’. He never knocks me back’. In response, Ron quipped: ‘Yes, but then I get off the phone to Juliet and Nigel rings up with his [ideas]. So I need two mobile phones! But we all have our roles, and it’s a perfect fit for what we want to achieve and where we’re going’.

Through IBA, Nunga Produce has received business support to develop a website, logo and other marketing resources to promote the Matjarra line. Of designing its distinctive black and white packaging, Nigel said: ‘We wanted it to look simple and elegant... The most successful and effective logos in the world are the most simple, and with every supermarket shelf screaming at you with sensory overload, we wanted this to be simple, inviting, homely and very professional’.

Ron says he feels proud to walk into a supermarket and see the Matjarra products on the shelf, knowing that sales of those products support the sustainability of Indigenous enterprise and employment. He, Juliet and Nigel are aware, however, that to achieve that sustainability Nunga Produce itself needs to stay in business. And that in turn requires a consistent supply of quality produce from the Indigenous grower’s network to ensure consumer demand can be met. The Matjarra website states this rather more bluntly: ‘Without such product we have no business...’ The business partners are therefore focused on the challenge of ensuring that the growers receive mentoring and handson support from the ground up, to provide each with a sense of ownership over their future as commercially viable enterprises.

Nigel believes having Ron as a ‘front man who walks the talk’ is central to building that sense of ownership.

‘It’s not as simple as I’ll give you this hand of cards to play, because a lot of people don’t actually know how to play the game… So having Ron run that entire [mentoring and training] side of it, they start to see an Indigenous fella who can do this, who is already doing it through his own market garden business’.

Of the existing network of families and communities tapping into Ron’s experience, Nigel said: ‘Many [growers] are stepping up to the plate, and all it takes is a handful of pillars in the community to make everyone follow suit. And it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is, or what your history is, we’re all going to have times where everything feels too hard, and we need people around to pick us up and carry us for a day’.

Nigel’s clearly not just talking about the growers. The friendship and common belief in what Nunga Produce—and Matjarra in particular—represent has sustained Ron, Juliet and Nigel for over seven years as they have sought to give form to their ideas. ‘It’s not so much about the products, it’s the people behind it’, said Nigel. ‘I mean you could be painting a fence, but if you’re doing it with people you love you can make magic happen. The relationship between Ron, Juliet and I is very personal, because things do stretch you out, get you down. But the love is very strong here, so when one person is feeling down, the other two step in’.

Of competing for shelf space in supermarkets such as IGA and Foodland, Juliet said: ‘They’re kind of watching us to see if we’re fly-by-nighters, because they don’t want to move stock over for ours if we’re not going to be here long term… But we’ve seen how long it can take and we’ve already had exposure that a lot of companies can wait a couple of years for. The Aboriginality [of Matjarra] is a marketing angle that a lot of retailers are keen to get on board with’.

Ron, Juliet and Nigel are hopeful that the general public will also now get on board in supporting the Matjarra line, and encourage consumers across South Australia to ask their local supermarket to consider stocking the products. Those sales, they say, represent roots from which economic independence for Indigenous families and communities can grow. Reflecting on the collaborative spirit that made the Matjarra launch event a success, Ron said: ‘Everyone doing a bit of this, a bit of that. That’s what it’s all about, that’s how things happen’.

Find out more about the Matjarra range of products and IBA's Business Development and Assistance Program.