Chinese E-commerce giant Alibaba had sales of US$560 billion (NZ$766b) last year but started in founder Jack Ma's apartment with only 18 employees.

It now has a staff of nearly 50,000 and has its eyes firmly set on the Australian and New Zealand markets, opening its first office in the region in Melbourne on Saturday.

Alibaba Group founder and executive chairman Jack Ma told 300 of the country's business and political elite on Saturday that Australia's clean environment is its next "gold mine".

"I really admire Australia and New Zealand for protecting the environment," he said.


"This is the most unique asset."

It was in vast contrast to China, where the environment suffered in recent decades.

"Through lack of experience, we've got a terrible polluted environment and a lot of things we have to import."

The former English teacher from Hangzhou, China, used his speech to encourage Australian and New Zealand businesses to seek growth abroad.

Mr Ma detailed Alibaba's rise 18 years ago from 18 people in his apartment, to a global e-commerce giant with hundreds of millions of customers and gross annual sales that hit US$560b in 2016.

Forbes estimates Mr Ma's worth alone at US$37b.

The company is an online marketplace, much like eBay but on a much larger scale.

Mr Ma said China presented enormous opportunity, as its economy moved from exporting to importing and where the middle class is expected to swell to close to 500 million in the next 15 years.

"Domestic consumption will be huge," he said. "We need high quality products and services that China will not be able to supply alone."

He said Australia and New Zealand's "simplicity of life" and respect for culture were its most important assets that China could benefit from.

So far there are over 1300 Australian brands and 400 New Zealand brands on Alibaba platforms, many of which entered China for the first time through its businesses.

The Alibaba Group also signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia Post to strengthen trade opportunities and announced a US$26m scholarship program at the University of Newcastle.

Saturday's launch was attended by Federal Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos, Premier Daniel Andrews, New Zealand Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges and China's ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye.