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Singapore 13/03/2024

BIG Interview with Jiunn Shih: Zespri's new venture to revolutionize kiwifruit industry sustainability

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Zespri, one of the global leaders in kiwifruit production, is taking significant strides toward fostering a greener, more productive, and resilient kiwi industry. In an exclusive interview with Fructidor, Jiunn Shih, Zespri's Chief Marketing, Innovation & Sustainability Officer, unveils the essence and aspirations behind Zespri's latest venture, the Zespri Agritech Future (ZAG) initiative—a bold, innovative funding project designed to seed growth, sustainability, and technological advancement within the kiwi industry.

 

Fructidor: Can you provide an overview of Zespri's recent funding project for innovation in the kiwi industry? What inspired Zespri to launch this initiative?

Jiunn Shih: ZAG is Zespri’s new US$2 million annual innovation fund designed to foster collaboration with solution providers, working together to address some of our industry’s key challenges as we meet the growing demand for Zespri kiwifruit. The fund actively supports areas of the environment, wellbeing, nutrition, and quality of kiwifruit, recognizing the interdependence among these to generate a ripple effect of positive influence throughout the entire kiwifruit value chain.

A Māori proverb, “Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini,” translates to 'My strength is not as an individual but as a collective.' The New Zealand kiwifruit industry demonstrates the power of collaboration and how far you can go when you work together. Through ZAG, we aim to act as a catalyst to harness ideas from others to solve challenges facing our industry. This is our inspiration.

Fructidor: What specific goals or objectives does Zespri aim to achieve through this innovation funding project?

Jiunn Shih: ZAG will support projects focused on four core priorities for Zespri: (1) Initiatives that are good for kiwifruit by driving superior quality and lifting on-orchard productivity; (2) Initiatives that are good for people by promoting wellbeing through kiwifruit consumption; (3) Initiatives that are good for the environment by protecting and enhancing nature; (4) And finally, initiatives that foster a thriving kiwifruit industry, benefiting growers and the local communities they are part of.

Fructidor: Could you elaborate on the areas of innovation that Zespri is particularly interested in supporting? How do these areas align with the company's long-term vision and values?

Jiunn Shih: Zespri’s purpose is to help people, communities, and the environment around the world thrive through the goodness of kiwifruit—and ZAG will play an important role in our mission. We are seeking partners to help us innovate in sustainable agriculture, technology, automation, packaging, supply chain, logistics, and industry education.

Fructidor: The project received significant global interest since its launch in late November 2023. What do you attribute this level of interest to, and how does it reflect the industry's current challenges and opportunities?

Jiunn Shih: One of the biggest challenges facing agritech startups and companies is a global decline in funding. Due to the vulnerability of the agriculture systems to climate change, investors are becoming more hesitant to inject capital. There is now a more specific focus on agritech sectors, especially those providing solutions for farmers and mitigating climate change.

Speaking to investors, like VCs, many of them are excited about the potential of engaging with ZAG. Zespri’s end-to-end value chain creates a unique ecosystem where investors can directly engage with growers and solution providers like startups. This way, they can engage with an entire industry rather than just a part of it. Investors would also understand the downstream application of the technologies they’ve invested in, which will strengthen the confidence of startups.

ZAG’s model, as a non-equity-seeking partnership, will be able to help solution providers scale their solutions across Zespri’s value chain while simultaneously receiving financial support, without the usual restrictions of a venture capital fund.

Fructidor: Considering the importance of finding new solutions to address sustainability and climate change concerns, particularly for growers, how does this funding project intend to address these urgent issues, and what impact do you anticipate it will have on the industry as a whole?

Jiunn Shih: Zespri has had a serious and continuous focus on building a comprehensive framework covering both social and environmental sustainability. Over the past year, our focus has been on our two greatest priorities—addressing the environmental impacts of our packaging and responding to climate change. On packaging, we’re gaining momentum, implementing a range of new solutions in our markets around the world. This has helped improve our performance to 88% against Zespri’s target of 100% recyclable or compostable packaging. On climate change, in November 2022, we launched our Climate Change Adaptation Plan – "Adapting to Thrive in a Changing Climate." It outlines the actions Zespri and the kiwifruit industry are focusing on to enable adaptation to a changing climate in our growing regions around the world. We’re returning value to our communities through our healthy lifestyle programs, and this year we achieved our target of delivering healthy lifestyle programs in all our major markets by 2022, with more than 35 programs in 12 countries.

Fructidor: Can you provide more details on the financial aspect of the project? How will the $2 million annual funding be allocated?

Jiunn Shih: This is a US$2 million annual fund, which will allow us to continually work with like-minded partners that have groundbreaking ideas. Each challenge is unique, and so are the solutions needed to overcome it. The funding amount is dependent on the project needs as listed on the website. We do not have a minimum or maximum disbursement limit; it is completely project-dependent.

Fructidor: How does Zespri plan to collaborate with researchers, innovators, and industry experts to ensure the success of this funding project?

Jiunn Shih: A project team will be assigned to the solution provider. This project team will then be responsible for overseeing the entire process, from executing the idea and taking it to the pilot phase within Zespri’s ecosystem. If the pilot is proven successful, the team will help scale it throughout Zespri’s value chain.

Fructidor: What are some potential outcomes or innovations that Zespri hopes to see as a result of this initiative? How do you envision these advancements benefiting growers, consumers, and the overall kiwi industry?

Jiunn Shih: We hope to have as many groundbreaking and inspiring outcomes as possible. The breakthrough ideas will help us to accelerate the Zespri’s purpose – helping people, communities and the environment around the world thrive through the goodness of kiwifruit. We will work with solution providers to foster new ideas that will improve growers’ wellbeing and safeguard productivity while striving to regenerate the land and ecosystem. This will allow our growers to and industry as a whole to grow more sustainably; improve visibility and reliability of the supply chain, as well as the quality of the kiwifruit; and ultimately improve the quality and nutritional content of the kiwifruit, and increase supply – improving access to good nutrition to consumers around the world.

 

Fructidor: Can interested parties, whether they are researchers, entrepreneurs, or industry stakeholders, get involved or apply for funding through Zespri's innovation project? If so, how?

 

Jiunn Shih: Yes, we are looking and welcome start-ups, entrepreneurs, social impact enterprises, universities, research groups and NGOs in sustainable agriculture, technology, automation, compostable packaging, supply chain, logistics, and education — essentially, innovative problem solvers who can help address some of the key challenges the industry faces as it meets growing demand for Zespri kiwifruit.

 

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Zespri, one of the global leaders in kiwifruit production, is taking significant strides toward fostering a greener, more productive, and resilient kiwi industry. Photo: Jiunn Shih, Zespri's Chief Marketing, Innovation & Sustainability Officer
   
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