Innovating with a Horticultural Leader: Juliet Ansell of Zespri

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The connection between New Zealand and the Actinidia genus is deep. The name Kiwi, derived from the beloved native bird, is also used for one of the country’s biggest agricultural products and, affectionately, the country’s people. Kiwifruit exports contributed NZ$2.5bn to the New Zealand economy in 2020, the largest fresh fruit export in terms of value.  

Unsurprisingly, one of New Zealand’s foremost companies, Zespri International, is the leading kiwifruit brand worldwide and an international horticultural giant. Juliet Ansell, Head of Global Science and Innovation at Zespri International, chatted to me about their approach to innovation and how technology can help with some of the sector’s most pressing issues. 

Overcoming Agricultural Challenges

One issue we got into straight away is labour shortages. It’s a problem that’s been building for some time, but the shortage of workers became a crisis when covid hit in 2020. Seasonal workers were unable to travel to New Zealand as normal, creating a major challenge for the business.  

Seasonal workers were unable to travel to New Zealand as normal, creating a major challenge

Juliet explained, “At the peak harvest time, we were 20% short on labour resources. We’re picking more fruits with less labour; it’s not harvested at the optimum quality. We’ve had to extend the harvest picking, which flows into the supply chain. We get problems with soft fruit. Soft fruit affects other fruit, and there’s food waste. We’ve estimated that’s about $440 million of lost revenue for us, and that’s only going to increase as we grow.” 

A decrease In the labour force resulted in increased food wastage.

Time is of the essence to ensure that a quality kiwifruit makes it to the consumer. Juliet uses her technical background and industry connections to find solutions, so Zespri is exploring engineering approaches that could help manage the large volume of fruit they pick in a short window of time.  

The company is investigating automated harvesters and human assist technologies that would take pressure off human resources. They are also considering redesigning how kiwifruit is grown, manipulating the canopy architecture to support robotics for pruning and harvesting or even using vertical growing techniques to promote indoor production. 

Covid forced the issue with labour shortages, but Juliet reflects that with hindsight, they could have started working on this issue sooner. “When people are looking into the future and see things as a problem, they’re often not felt by the people delivering the operational side. When the operational people start to feel the pinch, it’s too late. We definitely should have started, you know, 5 or even 10 years ago… we’re feeling the pain now”. 

National Level Collaboration

In New Zealand, AgTech pioneers find support from government-backed organisations like Sprout, Callaghan Innovation, and AgriTech New Zealand. As a member of AgriTech New Zealand’s executive committee, Juliet is at the forefront of new ideas and innovation, which helps her keep on top of new approaches that might be useful to Zespri. She also sees the bigger, national picture too. 

‘There’s a role for government interactions and lobbying to push the need for ag-tech’.

‘There’s a role for government interactions and lobbying to push the need for ag-tech. There’s definitely a connecting piece as well, which puts startups together with the industries that need their solutions and helps with product commercialisation. A lot of it is connecting, putting pieces together and building networks where people know each other.” 

Juliet Ansell, Head of Global Science and Innovation at Zespri International

An example of this, is the way Juliet engages with entrepreneurs who want to commercialise their ideas, sometimes this involves working closely with young companies with interesting technologies. “There’s one startup, called Pick Me, that supports labour on-boarding and allocation. We helped put them in touch with people in our network, and they’re now commercial. There’s another startup exploring the human assist area for harvesting that we’ve invested in. It’s mutually beneficial for Zespri to be involved with these startup companies.”

All of this connectivity is helping to make New Zealand a leader in agritech innovation.

All of this connectivity is helping to make New Zealand a leader in agritech innovation. This is perhaps not surprising when, according to Statista, the GDP of New Zealand’s agriculture, forestry and fishing industries was NZ$12.8bn in 2020-21, and supported 83,300 jobs. The report states, “Global AgriTech investment is high in New Zealand, and its roots in agriculture and growing tech industry provide an opportunity for the country to establish itself as an AgriTech nation”.

What’s Next?

Juliet sees the future of kiwifruit production at Zespri involving both indoor and outdoor production. “I think we’ll go two ways. The premium brand will be grown outdoors in New Zealand or Italy. But I think we’ll also have this split where there’ll be the high-tech production that is grown close to market, vertical, and circular in terms of water and nutrients. In that scenario, we give the plant exactly what it needs at the right time to achieve fantastic quality. I think that’s where I would see agriculture going – we do indoor and outdoor production equally well.” 

She also views environmental sustainability as an important focus for the company, with climate change challenging businesses to find more environmentally-friendly ways to get products to market. “I think carbon and climate change is driving a lot of how we grow, package and ship. In terms of sustainability goals, it’s helping feed people in a healthy way. For us, it’s probably one of the biggest challenges we think about,” Juliet says.

Zespri’s focus on sustainability is shown through its priorities.

Future investment holds the key to innovation, according to Juliet. While New Zealand focuses on supporting entrepreneurs and new ideas, she says more work should be done. “I’d like to see more investment in all of this technology and automation. Many people are investing, but we need more support, specifically in agriculture. We need to bite the bullet, put the money in and get it started.” 

If you’re interested in New Zealand’s AgTech scene you might like this article from 2019

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