Earlier this month, history was made. For the first time, Indigenous economic interests were included in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade negotiations for the new free trade agreement with the United Kingdom.

For Darren Godwell, co-founder and acting chief executive of the newly formed Indigenous Network for Investment, Trade and Export (IgNITE), the significance of sitting down to negotiations with the UK was not lost on anybody. Especially given 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival to Australian shores.

“This is not Indigenous interests going cap-in-hand asking for money. This free trade agreement will seriously enhance opportunities for Indigenous companies looking at overseas markets,” Godwell told The Fifth Estate.

Godwell, a descendent of the Kokoberren peoples of Cape York and CEO of Indigenous contracting firm i2i Global, says that even if a fraction of the second largest source of foreign investment in the country flows into Indigenous enterprise, free of government red tape, it will drive serious change.

It’s precisely this kind of support for Indigenous interests in commerce and trade that prompted IgNITE’s formation. In fact, the FTA negotiations hit the fast forward button on the organisation, with a steering committee appointed and a board and staff to follow.

But opening up export markets to Indigenous enterprises is only part of IgNITE’s mission to inject private investment into Indigenous-owned companies.

Government procurement policies a good start but time to level up

The federal government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy, initiated around six years ago, has helped kickstart the Indigenous business community in Australia – now consisting of 12,000 to 16,000 businesses – but Godwell says it’s time to go mainstream.

Leveraging billions in government spend to stimulate Indigenous businesses has been a welcome policy measure, but it’s not enough to grow early stage startups into mature businesses.

To grow, these businesses need access to serious finance.

Unfortunately, there’s little in the way of financial information or architecture to support interactions between the mainstream financial ecosystem – made up of everything from banks to angel investors, plus all the advisors and other players – and indigenous businesses.

That’s why the Indigenous business community needs an intermediary organisation to build a bridge between it and the private finance world.

“We need an intermediary to extradite the mainstream ecosystem of investment to indigenous businesses, and to do it on commercial terms,” Godwell says.

Recognising this gap, the independent, Indigenous-led intermediary aimed at opening doors for Indigenous businesses was formed, with Sean Gordon, Professor Kerry Arabena, Murray Saylor and Anthony Whitfield appointed to the steering committee.

Building networks and opening doors

The first challenge for the intermediary will be building a network of investors and boosting market intelligence to aid investment into Indigenous owned businesses. 

It’s second major task, according to Godwell, will be and addressing elements of risk for investors interested in the Indigenous space.

“That’s no small thing … we don’t want to belittle the size of that challenge, but we do believe there are market driven opportunities that make it worth the time and energy.”

Connection to Country can lead to longer term stability

Often, it’s a matter of educating investors about the unique and often reduced risk profile of Indigenous enterprise. For example, if you consider bringing traditional owners in as equity holders in something like a mine or largescale renewable energy project, you can expect long term stability due to their enduring connection to their Country.

“When black people retire, they retire to their Country,” Godwell says.

Securing equity interests for Traditional Owners and Indigenous Australians in commercial projects will be included in IgNITE’s agenda.

Godwell is confident that treaties will eventually be signed in Australia that will see Indigenous interests in land restored like it has been for First Nations people elsewhere.

Once this happens, he says Indigenous landowners will need investment capital to develop assets and infrastructure independently of government. 

He also sees huge opportunity for Indigenous players to take an equity interest in major projects, such large scale renewables, imagining a future where something like the Sun Cable mega solar project in the Northern Territory offered a 25 per cent stake to Indigenous people upfront.

“That’s decolonising investments. We need to think about indigenous interests as proponents, not just the stakeholder that needs to be consulted.

“This is the significant mind shift to move from are giving [Indigenous people] training opportunities as apprentices, and that’s the extent of Indigenous engagements.”

Natural born negotiators

As natural born negotiators, Godwell thinks there’s enormous potential in Indigenous business.

“Negotiating is everyday life for every Indigenous person.”

Looking back further, early Indigenous people thrived off a sophisticated system of trade to move food and other resources around the land at without any need for conflict. 

He also says it’s an asset that Indigenous cultures understand how to build sustainability across an entire continent, and survive in harmony and balance with the available natural resource

“I believe Indigenous success is essential to Indigenous futures in the modern world.”

Impact investment is also on the agenda

Another focus area for IgNITE will be impact investment, with Godwell committed to opening up a channel for this fast-growing source of capital to funnel into projects that positively impact Indigenous people. 

While the sky is the limit, opportunities for Indigenous enterprises are aggregating in a few key areas: mining, renewable energy, tourism, land management practices, civil construction, small scale manufacturing, the services sector, advanced technologies and Indigenous botanicals and agribusiness.

These preliminaries settled, he did not care to put off any longer the execution of his design, urged on to it by the thought of all the world was losing by his delay, seeing what wrongs he intended to right, grievances to redress, injustices to repair, abuses to remove, and duties to discharge.

This article is part of a series on indigenous businesses and was produced with the support of the City of Sydney.

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