From droughts to floods, fishing and recreation — Northland’s relationship with water is bittersweet. According to the new general manager of business growth at Northland Inc, water could be the key to unlock Northland’s economic potential. Christine Allen spoke to Joseph Stuart about a thirst for regional growth through water, food and forestry.

There's a wave of innovation heading this way.

In fact, it's already here and all around us.

There is no one answer to Northland's economic puzzle, but Northland Inc is the regional development agency tasked with putting the pieces together.

One of the largest bits of the jigsaw, according to Joseph Stuart, is the development of an innovation centre in the region to study water.


He says Northland Inc is already looking into conducting a feasibility study for the centre which could bring together scientific agencies in Northland to make the region a global leader.

"What if we could turn dirty water into drinking water ... dairy effluent into something valuable? We could be global leaders in this innovation."

Stuart, from Nelson, has just taken up his position at the local government agency this week and is already spotting opportunities for business growth.

It's early days, he admits, but he's looking forward to meeting the region's business people for a clear view of the bigger picture.

While many believe the Hawaiki Cable and data centre is the project to unlock Northland's potential, Mr Stuart says there are too many other regions already advancing in the direction of information and communications technology (ICT) for this region to be in the lead.

The digital dawn is just one chapter of the growth story of Northland.

"Other regions have ICT stitched up so it's a case of 'join the queue'.

"Everyone wants a piece of ICT and other regions are ahead of us. Auckland and Christchurch are already up and running, and Wellington already has an ICT precinct. Why would we try to do that when we are 10 years behind?"

Ultra-fast broadband did not have enough of an uptake yet either, he says, but a digital strategy is in the pipeline.

We have the digital roads but we need to first make sure we have something to carry on the roads.

"Before you have a business website, you must have a business."

He says opportunities around the study of water will make up a large part of the Northland Regional Growth Report, being conducted by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry for Primary Industries and due to be released at the end of the year.

The findings of the report will inform work by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise to attract investment into the region to support development with the ultimate aim of providing employment.

"This is more than just water management and irrigation, or the distribution of water," he says.

"An innovation centre could become a research hub, with potential to partner up with universities."

He says having university links in the region would help retain young Northlanders too.

Tasting success
The processing of logs in Northland before the region exports them in their raw state is something that most political parties have been singing about in the run-up to the September 20 election.

In March, Labour Party leader David Cunliffe announced policies to stimulate the forestry and wood industries by encouraging more processing of timber rather than just the export of raw logs.

There is an opportunity for Northland's largest iwi to be part of the success story, says Stuart.

"Ngapuhi has a huge opportunity in Northland and could invest treaty funds into forestry processing."

Stuart is also overseeing the development of a collaborative work space, the Orchard.

It's only at concept stage but has huge potential for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and sole traders in Northland.

The work space would allow service providers to benefit from the support of similar businesses.

The vision for the project in Whangarei involves a collaborative work space providing a unique working environment mixing entrepreneurs, sole traders, start-ups and non-profits to seed, nurture and grow opportunities.

Northland's food story is another tale of triumph yet to be told.

"We have a sub-tropical climate here - we can grow anything. Northland has amazing food businesses - honey, chillies, seafood, cheese, tamarillos, persimmons, squash and melons. We also have a great network of farmers markets."

When the Regional Growth Report launches this year, Northland Inc will let stakeholders taste it.

The launch party will feature local produce - something Northland has in abundance.

With a background as principal business adviser - and a number of innovation roles within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - Stuart turns ideas in ventures.

He was part of the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco, a project to help selected high-growth New Zealand technology companies establish and expand their business in the US.

He was also involved in the Lightning Lab - New Zealand's Digital Accelerator - matching seed investment and mentoring with start-up entrepreneurs.

Now, based at Northland Inc, he and his team are contracted by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) and Callaghan Innovation to award and administer research and development grants and support to businesses.

Training is also available at Northland Inc to help firms develop skills to take ideas to market.

Stuart says councils often placed roadblocks in front of businesses with layers of bureaucracy and Northland councils were no different.

Northland Inc can help navigate business ideas through the choppy seas of bureaucracy safely to the shores of success.

"Many Northlanders consider themselves successful when they have the Beamer, bach and boat. But why stop there? We help businesses to reach the next level."

What is Northland Inc

Based at Cameron St in Whangarei, the organisation is the region's main economic development agency and a Council Controlled Organisation (CCO) of the Northland Regional Council, which funds Northland Inc with an operational contribution.

It is a limited liability company formed in July 2012 when Destination Northland, the Regional Tourism Organisation (RTO) and Enterprise Northland Trust, the regional Economic Development Agency (EDA) were combined.

It is funded through other public and private agencies, with central government being the next largest contributor.

The agency wants to grow the Northland economy by 40 per cent by 2022.

If you want to know more

*See how Northland Inc can help your business.
*Check out The Orchard at