By John Daly
At a time when the economy faces potential pitfalls in the form of Brexit and global challenges to the corporation tax structure, Ireland’s food industry has remained a reliable marker of global growth and expansion.
To promote greater start-up success at the grassroots, a new Digital School of Food was launched last week.
An initiative of the Dublin Food Chain and the Local Enterprise Offices, the online programme is the first of its kind in Europe, giving food entrepreneurs access to expert advice through an e-learning initiative.
While the initial focus the Digital School of Food will be in the Dublin region, producers from anywhere in the country can avail of the service for free. Once the testing phase has been completed, marketing of the service will be extended.
“Setting up a new food business of itself can be relatively straightforward. However, growing that business to make it successful and sustainable in the long term presents a far greater and more complex series of challenges,” says chair of the network of Local Enterprise Offices Oisín Geoghegan.
“We need to ensure that our food entrepreneurs are provided with the right mix of support services so that they can identify opportunities and avoid pitfalls.
“This e-learning platform is a clever and very practical way to help small food businesses to learn the ropes at their own pace and in their own work environment,” he said.
The project is supported by Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia and the Dublin Institute of Technology.
“Food Starter, a two-day workshop programme, was the first interaction most producers had with our food expert trainers, and many expressed the wish to do some pre-learning in their own time prior to attending these workshops,” he says.
That demand motivated the Local Enterprise Offices to look at e-learning and enabled a successful funding application of €157,000 to kickstart the platform.
“It gives entrepreneurs access to sound commercial guidance and mentoring to help them get their products onto shelves, and also gives emerging food entrepreneurs and those who want to begin their food production journey, practical support to bring their idea or product to life,” he said.
The e-learning programme contains tips, advice, and information from existing producers, all related to succeeding in the food sector. James Burke, who has over 40 years’ experience working with early-stage food producers, developed the programme content.
“A pattern has emerged over the years of similar blockages and problems that producers encounter, and the Digital School of Food content is designed to help them identify these problems ahead of them arriving,” said Mr Burke.
Common problems include errors in calculating the costs associated with manufacturing a food product, not focusing enough on creating a strong food brand and a variety of difficulties associated with distribution.
The Dublin Food Chain is the marketing and networking group of the local enterprise offices and from whose ranks all the producers featured in the learning videos are drawn.
Mr Geoghegan cited the Dublin region as a good example of the food manufacturing sector acting as an important employment source.
“While not all of these producers continue in the food business, a minimum of 35 per year participates in the Food Academy programme,” he said.
This programme, which brings together the Local Enterprise Offices, Bord Bia and SuperValu, includes a live trial in SuperValu for producers who meet the required criteria.
“It is not long since Ireland’s food and drinks sector was seen as a sunset industry. “Now, it is Ireland’s largest and most important industry, with an annual turnover of €25bn, exports making up €10bn and sustaining 230,000 jobs,” he said.
“We have a well-regulated industry supported by an active government which, together with its agencies, has great skill at networking overseas,” he said.