ASEAN supermarkets prove fertile territory for Australian growers
In 1986, Duy Ly arrived as a refugee from Asia. Over the following three decades, he built his family agribusiness – 4 Ways Fresh – into a major supplier of fresh vegetables to supermarkets. Today, he is heading back to Asia, turning 4 Ways Fresh into an international business and helping small farmers across ASEAN become suppliers to fast-growing, western-style supermarkets.
The 4 Ways Fresh story started in early 1993, when the Ly family purchased their first farm in Virginia on the Adelaide Plains. As it grew to a total of five separate properties across Australia, his enterprise became vertically integrated, selling tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers and other vegetables direct to food processing companies and major supermarkets, including Coles, Woolworths and Costco.
What makes 4 Ways Fresh different is its mix of high-tech farming and collaborative business model. To gain long-term supplier contracts, 4 Ways Fresh works closely with 150 other farmers in everything from packaging to logistics. This involves technical skills training: ensuring that farmers can deliver safe, high-quality produce to the exact specifications that end customers require.
'Our success here made me look abroad,' says Ly, now Chief Executive Officer. 'Japanese and western-style supermarkets are taking off across Southeast Asia. These large chains want to deal with western-style suppliers, but in the long term we can't just supply Southeast Asia from Australia. Given our seasonal weather, produce must come from Australia and Asia.'
In 2015, Ly joined a trade mission to Vietnam organised by the South Australian Government with assistance from Austrade. His objective: to see if he could replicate the collaborative, 4 Ways Fresh business model overseas. The Austrade mission in Ho Chi Minh City organised multiple meetings, including with logistics companies, lawyers, accountants and local government bodies.
'From our very first meeting, Austrade officials gave us superb insights into Vietnam, including how the legal system works and the way overseas businesses operate there,' says Ly. 'The South Australian Government and Austrade proved to be highly valuable partners as we ventured into this new market, and they ensured our commercial ideas and plans got a fair hearing.'
Since 2014, Ly's company has invested in greenhouses in Kon Tum Province in Vietnam's Central Highlands and started growing trial crops. Meanwhile, he has begun training his employees in horticulture skills. Ly's Vietnamese-speaking employees are teaching community farmers Australian-style, high-tech farming techniques and food safety management. They are also explaining what western-style supermarkets look for in long-term suppliers.
According to Ly, local government bodies in Vietnam have proved open to new ideas and foreign investment. He reports that government officials actively want to help local businesses to learn from overseas enterprises so they can become more entrepreneurial. In his experience, Vietnam is very welcoming to small businesses from Australia — an experience repeated in Malaysia and Brunei.
'Right now, small-scale Australian entrepreneurs have a huge amount to offer in the region, where governments want family businesses to prosper,' says Ly. 'There's a perception that Asia is only for big companies, but there are great opportunities for small players with smart ideas. In many fields, our commercial skills are well respected and in demand. Asia is changing fast; now's the time to go.'