Northern Ireland’s Agri-food Sector Goes for Growth

The below article was written by John Hood, Invest NI Director of Food and Tourism for the publication Farm Week.

Over £530 million has been invested by food and drink companies, mostly based outside the greater Belfast area (98%), with Invest Northern Ireland assistance over the past four years.

Invest NI assistance of £52 million encouraged companies, both large and small and across most sectors, to invest a total of £532 million on developing their operations and in expanding sales, particularly outside Northern Ireland.

The growing confidence within what is now our biggest manufacturing sector, one which generated £4.5 billion to the economy here last year, is also seen in the sharp increase in expansion projects. In 2010-11, for example, food and drink companies committed to invest £64 million in their operations, with Invest NI offering assistance of £9 million. Four years later in 2014-15, the investment commitments have grown to £362 million with Invest NI offering assistance of £27 million.

While the most significant expansions were announced by industry leaders such as Moy Park in Craigavon, Dunbia, based in Dungannon, Dale Farm, Ballymena and Cookstown, Foyle Foods, Londonderry, Ballyrashane Creamery, Coleraine, and Golden Cow, Portadown, several smaller businesses such as Hannan Meats, Moira, En Place Foods (UK), Cookstown, Glenarm Organic Salmon, Kestrel Foods, Portadown and Suki Tea in Belfast also invested for faster growth in exports.

The total investment of £532 million is ahead of the target of £1 billion by 2020 set in the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s Going for Growth strategic action plan. In fact, a great many of the 118 recommendations made in the plan have already been auctioned by the key bodies involved, the departments of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, as well as Invest NI.

The investment projects are providing employment and helping to create wealth especially in rural communities where most of our leading food and drink companies are based.

As well as assistance for expansion projects, Invest NI has also supported the industry in developing sales outside Northern Ireland through support in key areas such as trade and innovation. For example, over 160 food and drink companies, mostly artisan and smaller businesses employing fewer than 50 people, were awarded Innovation Vouchers for projects ranging from the development of new products, to help with essential nutritional information for their labels.

Companies such as Lough Neagh Eels, Toome, Broighter Gold Rapseed, Limavady and Abernethy Butter, Dromara are just a few of the smaller companies which has benefited from Innovation Vouchers.

We have also helped local companies win new business outside Northern Ireland.  New business worth £25 million was secured last year by over 80 food and drink companies taking part in a comprehensive range of Invest NI programmes in key European and Middle Eastern markets.

Our support included lead generation, the organisation of ‘Meet the Buyer’ events, visits to global markets, participation in trade shows such as SIAL in Paris, the world’s biggest food and drink show, Gulfood in Dubai and Food Hotel, Shanghai, as well as a host of  ‘doing business abroad’ information workshops.  We continue to provide this professional support to food and drink companies.

Assisting existing exporters and new companies win business abroad is, of course, Invest NI's longstanding strategic focus. I believe the very practical support we now provide to our companies, both large and small, seeking to grow faster abroad is on a par with the assistance available in other parts of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

This new business won last year includes new sales of £17 million to markets outside the United Kingdom especially France, Italy Spain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  Indeed, the UAE is becoming an exceptionally important market for our companies. We've helped companies such as Irwin's Bakery, Portadown, Graham's Bakery, Dromore, Linwoods, Armagh, Mash Direct, Comber, Mullins Ice Cream, Kilrea and GM Marketing, Belfast.

The remaining £8 million represents additional sales in Britain, still our biggest external market, and include first time business with retail multiples such as Iceland.

Furthermore, 24 local companies saw increased sales from the Invest NI sponsored ‘Northern Ireland Shop’ on the OCADO website, one of the UK's biggest online retailers. Hundreds of Northern Ireland food products are now listed on OCADO and this has helped them win business in the Home Counties, among the most affluent UK regions.

Our outstanding success in internationally rated events such as the UK Great Taste Awards and the World Cheese Awards in recent years has also helped to increase awareness in the quality and innovation of our food and drink. We assist this process by sponsoring the Great Taste Awards and by highlighting company success through positive media coverage.

Our comprehensive support for the food and drink industry, as the statistics show, is contributing substantially to economic development in rural communities.