Whanganui teenager Alex Stewart has received backing from the Rural Innovation Lab to provide broadband access to isolated rural communities.

The 14-year-old has received support to purchase critical infrastructure for his business WombatNET, engage with the smartfarm farmer network to expand his reach, and to gather user feedback.

His was one of four rural innovation projects to receive support from the Rural Innovation Lab.

Mat Hocken, chairman of the Rural Innovation Lab, said the projects came from a request for people to submit ideas to help solve burning issues in the rural sector, as identified by farmers and growers.


"Farmers are facing a myriad of challenges," Hocken said.

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"How do we move from our existing systems and succeed in an uncertain and challenging future? The best way to get ahead of disruption is to innovate.

"The four innovation projects were selected from a pool of 50 applications, and also include a carbon calculator co-designed with farmers to estimate on-farm emissions, an online platform for farmer-to-farmer rentals and the development of a Māori agribusiness collective. We also have 80 third-year Massey University students working on a further 10 projects."

The Rural Innovation Lab was launched in Palmerston North in February 2019, with funding from the Provincial Growth Fund. It has engaged with more than 150 farmers, growers and Māori landowners to identify the key challenges they face and develop solutions.

The four projects will receive a package of support from the Rural Innovation Lab, including project facilitation from start-up and company development experts The Factory; access to partners within the Lab's collaborative network, including Massey University, Microsoft and the ecentre; mentoring by leading farmers and growers in the Manawatū-Whanganui region; and a contribution to project costs.

"We'll be supporting the four project teams to engage with farmers and growers, to help shape their ideas and innovations; facilitating their development over the next few months; and providing them with mentoring by leading farmers in the region," Hocken said.

"When you have 14-year-old entrepreneurs who are creatively responding to challenges farmers and growers are facing, it's a very exciting time to be in the primary sector."


The farmer and grower-led collaboration between Manawatu Farmers & Growers Innovation Collaborative, Massey University, The Factory, Microsoft, ecentre, local Māori farmers, Te Au Rangahau, Performance Beef Breeders NZ, and Federated Farmers received $400,000 of funding from the Government's Provincial Growth Fund.

The projects were announced at an event at Parliament last week. Minister of Agriculture and Rural Communities Damien O'Connor said the projects supported the Government's priority to assist thriving and sustainable regions.

"These projects exemplify the sort of enterprise and innovation that we want to see in our rural communities," O'Connor said.

"The food and fibre industries are the backbone of New Zealand's economy, delivering more than $45 billion in export revenue last year. The Coalition Government wants to help extract more value from what they already do, in a sustainable way that means our natural resources will be there for future generations. New ideas and technologies like these are essential if we want to keep our primary sector growing and maintain a competitive edge."