Giving voice to Indigenous women in agri-business

Republished from BP Australia's Discovery Magazine, Feb 2018

Leanne Miller’s dream is starting to take shape. She wants to enable Indigenous women to form a collective voice as they produce and successfully market Australian native bush food and botanicals that remains true to their traditional origin and contributes to people’s wellbeing.

A BP employee, her recent entrée into the inaugural cohort of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity (AFSE) Program provides her with a rare opportunity to turn her personal project into a reality.

The AFSE Program is a new social leadership program launched in 2016 by New York based foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies in partnership with the Australian Government. Led by the University of Melbourne, alongside national and international partners, the Fellowship aims to tackle the broader issues of social inequality and how parity can be achieved for all people, regardless of cultural background, race, gender, health or financial status.

Thanks to the Business Council of Australia (BCA) who is a partner of the AFSE, Leanne was nominated for the program but it was her employment background, experiences and proposal which helped earn her a place as one of 15 fellowships of the AFSE. In her part-time role as the Aboriginal Participation Advisor at BP Australia, she helps BP embed the delivery of its Indigenous Employment Strategy across the business. In her other job as the Project Manager of Koorie Women Mean Business (KWMB), she provides research and project development support for women and girls at the community level. Her background as a descendant of the Dhulanyagen Ulupna Clan, Yorta Yorta nation also brings a wealth of experience in Indigenous community development to the program.

As a fellow of the AFSE program, she is expected to use the program and its expertise, resources and networks, to launch and put into action her social change proposal over the course of 12 months. However, the work doesn’t end there; it’s a lifelong commitment for Leanne and the fellows that will see them continue to work on their projects with the communities to fundamentally improve future health and wellbeing.

We caught up with Leanne to find out more about her social change proposal.

Tell us about your proposal.

It’s about forming a national trading co-operative – a community of Aboriginal women who are committed to social change and who will build or participate in agricultural enterprises to benefit their communities and Australia.

While significant social change has occurred in Australia and we have seen Australia’s first Aboriginal landholders enterprise established on Noongar Country in Western Australia, Aboriginal women’s voices are silent in relation to land based business which is largely assessed and managed from a man’s perspective. And their viewpoints are not necessarily reflective of all Australian Aboriginal interests.

I’ve got nothing against initiatives led by men but I do question why Aboriginal women have not taken the lead on agricultural enterprises.

For this reason, I’m interested in what it would take to increase their participation and leadership, the way women driving Fairtrade co-operatives for coffee and food in third world countries have. This includes the way they develop their business to feed families and communities while remaining respectful and nurturing towards their environment.

For thousands of years, Aboriginal lore and knowledge have been passed from generation to generation. We do have a connection to place and identity, to what we eat and to where we come from. If we focus on the botanical products (fungus, quandong, mulga, or pepper tree) and bush food  lemon myrtle, bush tomato, honey ants or yam,  Aboriginal communities  can identify which parts are eaten or used for medicinal purposes.  What we have encountered in recent times is a strong interest in these areas. This has led to our spices and foods being added to dishes in cooking shows and restaurants, resulting in a shortage of supply.

How do you plan to action your proposal over the year?

The trading co-operative I spoke of will form a group of dedicated change leaders from existing networks who will support the development of a national ethical alliance of Aboriginal Women in land-based business. Networks such as Traditional Owners, KWMB, Noongar Land Enterprises, Outback Academy Australia and Community Social Enterprise Leaders will be approached for their initial interest. Those interested will be brought together at a couple of workshops to identify their views on how to proceed as an alliance of socially minded entrepreneurs and influencers of change.

At these workshops, there will be women from different backgrounds: those with farming skills and knowledge about Aboriginal botanical and bush products, and others who have grown up in urban areas and are new to farming or agricultural enterprises. I expect that the face to face exchanges between these women at the workshops will be exciting and a game changer. 

To help impoverished women and families through land-based initiatives, we will seek supporters and investors who have an interest in providing such aid. We will also approach government to provide support for research or scholarships to young women seeking agri-business as a career pathway.

Our research, advocacy, funds and marketing support will be bestowed upon a minimum of two land-based enterprises led by women.

Change will be activated when these women return to their communities armed with the knowledge and the tools to build local community businesses. This is particularly important in areas where food is scarce and the economy is down.

How different is the outcome of your proposal to the Indigenous products already in the market place?

There is a lot of food that people eat today that’s accessible and commercialised but they don’t know what they mean to Aboriginal people, culture and customs. To Indigenous people, “Each plant and animal lives in a significant place within the environment and they’re significant foods to Aboriginal people”.

My vision is for the co-operative to produce foods and share information about the produce with consumers so that they know their origin, how they are produced, if they have medicinal properties, and the communities they are supporting with their purchase.

People who buy our products are part of a growing movement in ethical purchasing. They care where their products come from and whether they were produced ethically.

What happens to your proposal after your year of fellowship ends?

My proposal is to set up the trading co-operative.  It may take longer than 18 months to establish a voice in the current market in Australia.  The ASFE is part of a 20 year proposal supported by the Atlantic Fellowship.