Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations

In a time of momentous change and promising growth in the native foods, fibres, and botanicals sector, a Traditional Owner-led entity offers a foundation for economically and socially sustainable sector development that supports Aboriginal economic development.

The value goes beyond Indigenous economic participation; it reaffirms how Indigenous Australians can shape their own social, cultural, and economic wellbeing.

The Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations (FVTOC) engaged SGS Economics and Planning and Business Council of Co-Operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) to provide expert advice on the feasibility of establishing a Traditional Owner-led growers collective for Victoria’s native foods, fibres, and botanicals (NFFAB) sector. Currently, Victoria’s NFFAB sector:

  • Is dominated by micro-scale organisations. It is, however, well-positioned to grow its presence to make a sizeable contribution to State and national economies. Growth factors include their proximity to the market, an established local ecosystem of supply chain actors, highly engaged Traditional Owner Corporations (TOCs), Aboriginal-owned businesses, and stakeholders exploring various sector development aspects.
  • Is buoyed by strong and growing demand for NFFAB products. Historically, the commercialisation of native plants has led the way, though interest in fibres, botanicals, and pharmaceuticals is growing.
  • Faces several barriers to sector development. These include unreliable production and harvest volumes, workforce capacity challenges, limited land and water rights inhibiting resources and Indigenous entrepreneurship, and the misappropriation of Traditional Knowledge and Knowledge Systems.
  • Is exploring ways to ensure that the benefits of sector development flow to Traditional Owners and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The commercial success of non-Aboriginal operators is at the expense of Indigenous IP protection and authentic production techniques.

A Traditional Owner-led collective to catalyse sustainable sector development and supply chain ownership

The feasibility of establishing a Traditional Owner-led collective was assessed against five dimensions: commercial, stakeholder, technical, socio-economic, and funding feasibility. Drawing from stakeholder and industry engagement and secondary research, our study finds that a Traditional Owner-led collective would be feasible.

The benefits of this entity include:

  • Bringing together TOCs for reciprocal knowledge exchange, sharing resources, and collectively designing a roadmap for sustainable sector growth. A central ‘hub’ organisation can be a much-needed catalyst to convert initiatives into successes across multiple groups.
  • Efficiently and economically facilitating access to service streams desired by TOCs in the NFFAB sector. For example, support in education and workforce development, access to advocacy services, IP protection, and community economic development.
  • Providing an avenue for TOCs to establish an NFFAB market-shaping role. Strength in numbers and the united voice of the collective would support advocacy, policy development, and regulatory change. For example, there is a need for systemic change to resolve the prevailing tensions between protecting Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property and commercial interests.

The co-operative opportunity

Considering the collective’s corporate form options, our study finds that the co-operative model offers distinct advantages over alternative models for promoting Traditional Owner participation. Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, equality, and solidarity. They abide by internationally agreed principles that align practice, social purpose and values.

Australia has 222 Indigenous-owned and controlled co-operatives and mutuals (BCCM, 2021). Co-operative case studies from Australia and around the world highlight key success factors that could address the priority areas of need and concern expressed by TOCs in Victoria’s NFFAB sector:

  • Enabling independent businesses to grow their market presence by providing access to markets and bargaining power
  • Facilitating economies of scale by enabling individual businesses to jointly own and control some or all of their supply chain
  • Providing a mechanism to transfer risk from the small producer to the shared business
  • Supporting smaller operations to remain viable, withstand cycling economic and social conditions, and remain independent
  • Spread wealth back to members through profit-sharing and rebates
  • Collectively protecting traditional practices and IP
  • Growing a successful, sustainable, domestically owned farming, manufacturing and processing sector based in Victoria.

The motivations and drive for Victorian TOCs in the NFFAB sector are not solely commercially driven. There are other cultural values and connections to Country which are seen as important value propositions, creating a unique blend of purpose and prosperity.

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