Rural entrepreneurs face steep hurdles bringing their innovations to market, but the province is well endowed with people willing to put their ideas to the test, researchers with Brandon’s Rural Development Institute have found.
The institute recently partnered with eight Manitoba bulk food-processing companies to analyze sector activity and growth opportunities.
“This study itself builds on several years of research. Initially we were looking at immigration in food processing, what roles immigrants were playing in the various companies in Manitoba and as we were doing that a number of company officials voiced that they wanted an overview of the industry,” said Dr. Bill Ashton, project lead and director of Brandon University’s Rural Development Institute (RDI).
Over the course of two years, the RDI aligned with eight provincial bulk food processors — Richardson Milling, Shape Foods, Prairie Garden Purée, Hemp Oil Canada, Floating Leaf, BeeMaid, True North Foods, and Brar Natural Flour Milling.
“The case studies we selected were diverse on purpose, in terms of the size of the company, the number of employees, the commodities they were processing, how well established they were,” said Ashton. “The idea was to find some trends or commonalities in all of those interviews and that may be able to say something about the whole food-processing industry in Manitoba.”
To gain insight into the eight case studies, researchers conducted more than 60 interviews of company leaders, supply chain participants, associations and other researchers.
They focused on how innovations have occurred, involvement of the supply chain, the duration of time invested into the development of the innovations and the resulting nature of growth.
Each case study described the company, the industry, its supply chain and examined the types and properties of past and possible future innovations.
The institute found the term “innovation” to be complex with a number of definitions, but in most cases found it required the co-operation of multiple partners.
“Innovation is often portrayed as an individual and this project really shatters that image. It truly involves a whole group of people and collaboration across a trusted supply chain,” said Ashton.
RDI found a number of innovations currently taking place in the sector, from developing new products that require product and process development to exploring new packaging and marketing streams.
“We really feel innovation should be directed towards exports as we need to be able to bring in that outside money into Manitoba,” said Ashton. “This notion makes good sense and I think that we are really well poised to be able to pursue it.”
Ashton also noted research saw potential in bulk processors creating new products from existing ingredients.
Moving forward, RDI will look at adding further case studies to this project as well as examine the opportunities that lie in adding value to commodities.
“We may look at commodities and the opportunities to add value there. This is something that folks may be having conversations about and it is an ongoing strategy for most provinces but how does it actually get done? I think that is something worth looking at,” said Ashton.
In October, RDI began a new two-year study geared to providing tools to strengthen the province’s rural agri-food industry.
After receiving funding through the federal and provincial initiative, Growing Forward 2, the institute has begun examining the barriers and accelerators Manitobans are facing when trying to get their ideas to market.
“One part of the study is looking at successful innovations in the food development side,” said Ashton. “We will talk with people who are in the process, or have developed a new product and we are most interested in these milestones of how they innovated, who helped them, who accelerated the process and what caused barriers for them.”
The project hopes to identify systemic barriers that affect the commercial cycle and construct new tools, strategies and support programs to ease the road to commercialization for rural innovators.
“We are hoping, through a number of case studies with very diverse products, we will end up being able to see some patterns about what is accelerating and what is causing delays or barriers,” said Ashton. “If we can get some of these insights, I think that can contribute directly to innovation in the province.”
Ashton says that innovators in rural areas face unique challenges, specifically in terms of low populations and large distances from necessary resources.
“Dealing with these factors means that you’ve got less people, less money and literally less infrastructure,” said Ashton. “In many cases you can’t gain financial support, the services that you need are fragmented and there are not a lot of people around to support you because they are unlikely to take risk around innovation.”
RDI will speak with innovators across rural Manitoba but will also put focus on a few communities in the southwest region.
“For the particular communities, we are looking in the southwest because we think that people aren’t always willing to travel to Winnipeg but they may be willing to come to a regional centre like Brandon or Dauphin.”
According to Ashton, part of the project will look at the option of creating regional centres or hubs to provide easier access.
The project will also look at the option of developing an outline of related services in order to better identify the path to commercialization.
“This notion of fragmented services is probably true, the question is how can we help people map some of that out ahead of time? Many of these services already exist, it is just a matter of making people aware and improving access.”
Ashton says over the two-year project, the RDI will look to connect with a number of innovators throughout rural Manitoba and survey three or four communities.
“We want go out and explore the risk of innovation because my general sense is producers, their families and communities are taking a lot of risk all of the time, but they may not be calling it innovation. They might not be producing patents or borrowing money but it doesn’t mean that they are not innovating and we are out to see if that is the case,” said Ashton.