THE Sydney entrepreneur behind the Alibaba-backed international seafood trading platform Gfresh has urged Australian primary producers to focus on branding amid strong international competition for exports into China.
China's voracious appetite for seafood and other primary produce has made it Australia's largest export market for agriculture - worth $10 billion in FY16 - but competitors such as Canada, Chile and Europe are muscling in on the Chinese market.
Gfresh co-founder Anthony Wan, 31 (pictured), describes today as a "golden age for seafood", which has been stoked by the Australia-China free trade agreement and channels such as Gfresh, which facilitates a marketplace, provides a secure payment facility, and logistics.
However, Wan, who is now based in Shanghai, points out there are many competitors for the Chinese dollar. For example, Gfresh's first client was a Canadian lobster producer that has tripled its size in that time as it has grown alongside Gfresh, which has facilitated $200 million in sales in its short life.
"What really matters in the future is the brand of the seafood company themselves and how they utilise that brand in the new market," says Wan.
"Australia is in a very strong position, but the competition now at a global level has really increased.
"It used to be that an Australian company could rely on the country's name, but now so many countries have the same message. Canada, Chile, Europe are all adopting the natural, organic selling points, and I think Australia needs to invest in brands.
"Now, brands really do matter."
Gfresh is like a combination of PayPal, Uber and Airbnb, but for seafood - something that was previously thought impossible, because products such as abalone and lobster must arrive alive.
"Two years ago, the thought of selling seafood online seemed pretty much impossible for most people; the biggest progress that we have made in the past two years is that we have made what seemed impossible seem inevitable," says Wan.
He remembers his first visit to the China Seafood Expo at Qingdao around the time Gfresh launched, when no one was talking about ecommerce. At the latest event, late last year, "every person was talking ecommerce".
"The seafood industry is very traditional. The people are not too keen on using technology to solve problems," he says.
"Most people we talked to at the start said, 'no, this will never work'. This is an industry based on relationships - who you know, who you had dealt with in the past.
"We were up against the traditional players, but some users were quite brave and gave it a shot to see how it worked.
"We had a strong value proposition."
The Gfresh value proposition is that it solved three key issues for exporters into China: establishing a marketplace; getting paid; and logistics.
The business plan has impressed some important players. Gfresh recently completed a seed funding round, where it raised $20 million from Riverhill Fund, which is associated with Alibaba, and Legend Capital. It is in the process of integrating with Alibaba's T-MALL marketplace.
"The reason we specifically chose those two parties was because they represented two leaders when it comes to ecommerce players in China. They give us a lot of advice and a very strong network effect as well."
Wan sees seafood as the first piece of the Gfresh puzzle and plans to move into other categories of fresh produce.
"If we can do seafood, we can do fruit and vegetables and dairy. The perishables market is doing a massive move online, and that has only really started we are yet to see how big it could really be.
"Australian produce is once again very well positioned and there is a lot of potential there for Australian fruits, vegetables and dairy."
Wan says the free trade agreement with China has made a "massive" difference to his business.
"At a global level, barriers to trade are coming down. Free trade agreements have made logistics easier and efficient payment, which used to be a major issue, is now a non-factor," says Wan.
"For the ordinary Australian company, it is so much easier now to trade on a global level than it used to be."
Wan's background is in law, but was inspired to start Gfresh alongside business partner Reg Tang due to his family's experience in the seafood business.
He has extensive contacts in the Australian industry and is working with Australian companies including the Geraldton Lobster Cooperative, the Craig Mostyn Group and Kailis Brothers.
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