Trade and Investment

How Indigenous peoples are reshaping modern economies

Historically, most initiatives related to Indigenous peoples have understandably centred on civil and political rights.

Historically, most initiatives related to Indigenous peoples have understandably centred on civil and political rights. Image: Pixabay/Ylanite

Darren Godwell
Co-Chair, IgNITE
Asha Nooh
Specialist, Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, World Economic Forum
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  • Tremendous growth potential exists for the global Indigenous economy.
  • Increased participation of Indigenous businesses in trade and policy development has the potential to unlock mutual economic prosperity.
  • Programmes and partnerships among different stakeholders are improving supplier diversity and access to finance, markets and networks.

Indigenous peoples have been engaging in international trade for millennia. In modern economies, Indigenous businesses have demonstrated remarkable resilience with tremendous growth potential. For example, in 2016, TD Economics estimated the Indigenous economy in Canada at $24 billion, and, according to the Indigenomics Institute, it has the potential to grow more than triple in size. In parallel, New Zealand research firm BERL documented the Māori economy at $42 billion, reflecting an astonishing 60% growth between 2013-2018.


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There is an opportunity for investments with Indigenous businesses that could create mutually beneficial relationships and equitable access to growth and trade. Often, Indigenous innovation includes an element of social entrepreneurship that delivers community and environmental impacts – a golden thread in the emerging field of impact investing – and much of their decision-making pivots on positively impacting future generations.

At a time when the world is working to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs can be a guiding force.

Meaning of economic inclusivity for Indigenous people
Meaning of economic inclusivity for Indigenous people. Image: Darren Godwell, Asha Nooh

Here are some innovative ways that Indigenous peoples are engaging in trade:

Building connections

Finding the right partners, buyers, and suppliers is vital to growing a business and accessing opportunities. Australia’s Indigenous-led and industry-based Indigenous Network for Investment, Trade and Export (IgNITE) is building Indigenous capacity, promoting export opportunities, and supporting inclusive trade policies and Indigenous inclusions. The Australian government has also established an Indigenous Procurement Policy to foster Indigenous participation in supply chains, through which 2,604 Indigenous businesses have been awarded contracts with an estimated worth of over $3.6 billion as of 2021. Supply Nation was established to advocate and support this government policy and to connect Indigenous businesses with non-Indigenous businesses.

Similarly, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) has created programmes to help foster such relationships in Canada. In New Zealand, the Māori-led Te Taumata has worked to substantiate Māori inclusion and leadership in trade matters in APEC and recent free-trade negotiations with the United Kingdom and the European Union.

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Unlocking finance for Indigenous people

Access to finance is one of the most pressing barriers to expanding Indigenous businesses, and limitations on Indigenous peoples’ access to capital remain for several reasons, from the inability to use collectively owned, traditional lands as collateral for bank loans, to perceptions of risk. Indigenous inclusions in trade arrangements will lift their involvement in foreign direct investment channels, but to date, Indigenous interests have rarely been invited to participate. That may change as investors move towards large-scale renewables, carbon markets, extractives and agriculture that necessitates Indigenous lands and knowledge to meet ESG commitments towards ethical supply chains and sustainable finance.

At the domestic level, other finance programmes are slowly developing. The Indigenous Growth Fund in Canada is one such programme that will provide access to capital to Aboriginal Financial Institutions to serve Indigenous SMEs.

Partnering for mutual benefit

Non-Indigenous businesses have recognised the advantages of partnering with Indigenous businesses, including the opportunity for knowledge-sharing. One example is the Māori 50-50 partnership with the Japanese seafood company Nippon Suisan Kaisha Limited (Nissui) in Sealord Group Limited.

The company operates in sustainable fishing and aquaculture, employing over 1200 people in New Zealand and beyond. This partnership has led to the company trading its products all over the globe with a seafood portfolio worth more than $500 million, which exemplifies how private sector partnership with Indigenous peoples can lead to mutual economic prosperity and growth.

Designing inclusive trade policies

The content of trade agreements and the processes involved in their development are being revisited to improve inclusivity. New Zealand’s Trade for All agenda aims to make trade policies work for everyone in New Zealand, including traditionally underrepresented groups like Māori. The government engaged with Māori to determine the key principles of trade policy for New Zealand, which include maximising opportunities for all while addressing global issues such as Indigenous rights. The island country recently concluded free trade agreements (FTAs) with the United Kingdom and the European Union, containing dedicated chapters on Māori Trade and Economic Cooperation that promote cooperation activities that will enhance Māori access to the benefits of the agreement.

The APEC-initiated Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement (IPETCA) is a novel agreement that has the potential to boost Indigenous trade. Parties have agreed to work cooperatively to remove trade barriers for Indigenous peoples, share knowledge, promote responsible business conduct, and build networks. A Partnership Council will be established with representatives of Indigenous peoples to guide and review the implementation process of the agreement.

Protecting the uniqueness of Indigenous products

The protection of Indigenous products like Kakadu plum and mānuka honey has now been advocated via geographical indications (GIs) – signs that protect the uniqueness and reputation of products with traditional linkages and qualities derived from a geographical origin.

In a report published in 2021, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) acknowledges that GIs can be used to distinguish Indigenous products and shield them from misleading trading practices, consequently enabling commercialisation and economic growth that benefits Indigenous communities. Such expansion can already be seen in the EU, where GIs are used to protect drink and agri-food products such as wines and spirits. A study found that, at the end of 2017, 3,207 EU products were protected under GIs, resulting in a sales value of $78 billion.

The future of Indigenous inclusivity

Historically, most initiatives related to Indigenous peoples have understandably centred on civil and political rights. However, what is needed now is a greater emphasis on economic opportunities that are in line with Indigenous values and needs. Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses have demonstrated great resilience and have much to offer regarding knowledge, innovation, and environmental and community impact.

There is a growing movement to realise these opportunities at the local, national, and global levels through policies and private partnerships to create a more inclusive economy.

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