First Nations entrepreneurs are still fighting ‘the white boys club’, as major banks try to improve

Rayleen Brown has conquered many hurdles to set up a small catering business, and now she may face one of her biggest yet: getting a loan from Australia’s private finance sector.

“I’ve always been a bit afraid to go into that space,” she says.

The Arrernte and Ngangiwumirri woman started out many years ago with a business that pioneered bush foods in the Northern Territory.

Knowing many people’s reluctance to native ingredients, Rayleen and her co-founder Gina infused baked goods with desert quandong and found ways to use marinade recipes passed down by her father’s kin.

“We wanted to introduce people to these beautiful flavours that we love so much,” she says.

“People thought we were crazy. It was more of a novelty back then.”

Their business, Kungas Can Cook, flourished to include a cafe in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and catering for the town’s events. They hired other Indigenous people and funnelled cash back into community.

It was a huge achievement for Rayleen, who “grew up in public housing”.

“It’s self determination in a way really,” she says.

After a pandemic setback, the now-grandmother is today trying to build up her business again. She wants to set up a commercial kitchen in Mparntwe to make pre-packaged bush food infusions to sell in shops and supermarkets.

To do this, Rayleen needs an injection of cash. And it’s here that experts in First Nations finance say she’ll face many entrenched and institutional hurdles.

How many Indigenous entrepreneurs are there in Australia?

There’s little reliable data on the size of Australia’s First Nations business sector. 

ABS data compiled from the last Census in 2021 shows there are almost 18,000 registered Indigenous “owner managers”, which isn’t a wholly representative way to count the true extent of the sector’s entrepreneurs.

There is limited data on Indigenous business in Australia.(ABC News: Xavier Martin)

There’s also around 19,000 people registered as directors of Indigenous corporations, however again this isn’t a widely agreed measurement.

Researchers recently noted in a paper for the Reserve Bank of Australia about the lack of data.

“The best available evidence suggests that the number of registered Indigenous businesses and corporations grew at around 4 per cent per year between 2006 and 2018,” Michelle Evans and Cain Polidano from the University of Melbourne wrote.

“The contributions of First Nations businesses and corporations have seldom been mentioned in the discourse of the Australian economy.”

The researchers noted that one of the big factors pushing growth in the sector has been the Commonwealth’s Indigenous procurements policy, which was brought in last decade to encourage the federal government to source from First Nations business.

In the 2020-21 financial year, it led to 10,920 contracts worth $1.1 billion. The next year’s data is due shortly.

Meanwhile, separate data from Indigenous business organisation Supply Nation shows that last financial year its 700 members spent $3.8 billion with verified First Nations suppliers. That was a 62 per cent increase from the previous financial year and it includes spend from government, not-for-profits and corporate buyers.

Major bank NAB projects Indigenous business volume will continue to grow at a rate of 4 per cent to 2026, which is double projections for the broader economy.

NAB is positioning itself as a leader in lending for the space, and along with this many venture capital firms are also creating funding streams for Indigenous entrepreneurs.

However, First Nations business experts who have spoken to ABC News are warning the finance sector to shape up and to focus on targeting those who really need the help.


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