Most weeks I turn on to Ship Street on approach to Cork and wonder what on earth is going on with the docks in the city.
Here we have a beautiful river frontage with ample space to develop something special close to the city centre and yet it is effectively empty. I have an idea. Why not make the Cork Docks a global hub for food science and finance?
We already have strong third-level resources around the city and especially in University College Cork. If you review the annual reports of leading Irish agri-food companies you will find a large number of very senior executives were educated through Cork. There is already a natural diaspora of high-level business executives across the global food and drink sector that could be tapped to support this initiative.
So, start by defining the Cork Docks Food Centre (CDFC) as a strategic asset being developed by the Government to provide third-level education and R&D for the global food and drink industry.
Establish specialist courses to educate Irish and non-Irish undergraduates in the skills of producing, analysing and researching commodity and value added ingredients for the sector. It should encompass everything from the farm to pharmaceutical quality food stuffs.
Next, develop a financial capability around the CDFC. That financial resource should be formed by tapping private equity and commercial banking sources, together with support from Enterprise Ireland and the IDA, to create a large series of agricultural, food and beverage investment funds.
These should provide funding for projects that stem from the third-level activities in the CDFC and related connections to global corporates.
The CDFC should host quarterly Dragons Den type summits that connect entrepreneurs and companies in the global food sector with investors — all organised and hosted in Cork using existing infrastructure.
Once momentum has been established, the CDFC should become a go-to source for information about the science and financing of food production.
The Government should pitch for UN and FAO type investment programmes that enrich the breadth and intellectual property of the CDFC.
The standards would have to be world-class, and bench-marked against the best in Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific regions.
Far-fetched? Back in 1972 Kerry Group started out with a portable building in Listowel and sketchy plans for a powder dryer. It is now worth €6bn on the stock market. Pernod Ricard, via its Irish Distillers unit in Midleton, has become the No 1 Irish whiskey brand globally in the last five years and is growing at double digit rates. Dairygold, which surrounds Cork, has a strategic link with Danone in Macroom to develop infant formula for the world market.
These are all Munster centric success stories.
Remember, Cork was once the world’s most important butter market, and in the 1600s, was a key world trading hub for agricultural produce. We need now to re-energise that heritage but built for the modern world. That means fast broadband and deep IT infrastructure.
It requires multilingual personnel, travel, and the development of a private equity eco system around the city. If this was done right, it could replicate the experience of the aircraft leasing sector where Ireland has come from nowhere to having almost 30 companies accounting for 50% of the world’s aircraft financing market.
We could do even better in the agri-food space if a lot of energy and leadership where focussed on the docks in Cork. Has anyone got the bottle for that?
* Joe Gill is director of research with Bloxham Stockbrokers.
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