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Sometimes it takes somebody else to bring to light the reason you’re uncomfortable with something.

In this case, Wellington’s Vantage Consulting Group director David Miller has unearthed the nub of the challenge underneath the proposed buy-out of manuka honey (and other products) producer Comvita by overseas-owned Cerebos, in turned 83% owned by Japanese liquor company Suntory.

“Do we really want to expose one of our most promising high added value primary industry based sectors to the whims of offshore managers,” Miller asks?

“The thought of flogging offshore the value chains associated with icons such as Mt Cook, the Waitomo Caves, the kiwi or the All Blacks would be beyond the imagination of most New Zealanders. Why on earth would we do it for manuka honey derived health products, which are based on another national icon?”

Miller (whose press release can be found here) makes the point that, like Fonterra and its brands and Zespri, the country would rightly question whether someone making a bid for those entities would be considered to be acting in the best interests of New Zealand. Yet, neither dairy cows nor kiwifruit are native to New Zealand – but manuka is.

Like Chalkie in yesterday’s Dominion Post, Miller says that shareholders and directors may simply be looking for the best deal, now, that they can out of potential buyers. Chalkie (see the article here) is also asking whether there mightn’t be a white knight NZ buyer who would help operate the business, and by default, the wider manuka products industry, in the best interests of the country.

sticK’s in agreement with them both. The recently launched Manuka Research Partnership (a 50:50 deal under the Primary Growth Partnership fund) is looking at how to produce 16 times the current production of manuka honey and crack $1 billion in sales over the next few years. Much of its focus is on improving the yield from swathes of high country that increasingly may only be suitable for what was once considered a weed.

Comvita’s a cornerstone component of the MRP, but quite how a change of ownership would affect the research programme is problematic.

Miller’s right.

This is ‘our’ product, and though it is over to Comvita shareholders to decide whether they are prepared to be patient and execute a long-term strategy, there’s a great potential for yet another New Zealand industry to merely end up being pawns in somebody else’s game.

If NZ Inc, in this case strongly led by Comvita, doesn’t control its manuka value chain, efforts such as MRP risk being still-borne before they’ve really even started.

Honey deal not so sweet

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