The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Director of Research and Engagement Suzannah Jessep was until recently New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to India. Ms. Jessep actively participated in the INZBC summit in Auckland as speaker and panellist. In this interview, she shares her views on the conference and her passion for India and all things Indian while offering advice and encouragement for Kiwi companies to be part of what some experts believe will grow to become the world’s largest economy by the middle of this century.
As an attendee and speaker at the INZBC conference and as one who has great passion from India, having lived there for a time, what are your thoughts on how NZ Inc can step up its trade and investment relationship with India?
I have always had a soft spot for India, ever since I was twelve and had a vague notion that I wanted to be a diplomat. Since then, and having now had the opportunity to serve as New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to India, I think my twelve -year-old self was on to something.
India is a fascinating, diverse and complex country, that is in some ways a bit of a miracle. It is so big and so diverse, that keeping it unified and stable is no easy feat. It is no surprise that patriotism is a much stronger feature of life in India than it is in New Zealand, as it helps to glue together huge states, different languages and diverse cultures, and create a sense of shared identity in the world.
India’s approach to trade is somewhat similar – very domestically focused, with emphasis placed on attracting Foreign Direct Investment, creating jobs, gaining technology and protecting vulnerable sectors such as agriculture where millions live hand-to-mouth.
India may sign free trade agreements but personally, if I were in trade, I wouldn’t wait for the ink to dry. Living in India, I saw how quickly a small idea could gather momentum, and before long, become a bustling industry. A shop, in what appeared to me to be a very random location, would suddenly have hundreds of shoppers, seemingly out of nowhere. A single product, worn by a Bollywood actress, could suddenly go viral.
Indian families would invest in the best education and nutrition their incomes would afford them, giving New Zealand products and services – if high quality and cost competitive – an immediate market in India. A strong business partnership in one state could within a year or two become a pan-India phenomenon.
But as quickly as your India star might rise, it can fall quickly too. Trading in India takes grit, determination, flexibility, enterprise and – importantly – relationships. It’s not just a matter of packing up a box of kiwifruit and hoping for the best. India is a market with a service for every need, and it’s expected that customer support is provided. We all know people and relationships matter in India, but in my view, they really add to the fun and kind-heartedness of India too!
What specific areas do you think the two countries could take up as a priority based on the strengths that could be cross-leveraged?
During my presentation to this year’s INZBNC summit I talked about soft diplomacy and building relationships. Statistically, just over half NZ’s adult population assess themselves to know little-to-nothing about Asia. This is quite a stunning statistic – for a region that will not only be shaping NZ’s future, but global order. And India, through sheer scale, is going to play a big part in that order. But how do you grow a relationship when you know very little about each other? Knowledge is important because it builds confidence and understanding; it helps you know your market and consumers; and it provides you with the skills to recognise unconscious bias and unhelpful stereotypes. This is particularly true for India.
We are all familiar with the headlines that a country of India’s size can generate for media outlets. Like sharks for Australia, India gets its fair share of negative press offshore. Shock stories sell. But the good news is, things are changing, aided by affordable travel offering first-hand experiences and social media providing alternative narratives to mainstream coverage. Trade isn’t just about selling stuff, it’s also about your story. What are your values? What gives you mana? What defines your culture? This is how we invest in soft diplomacy – building familiarity, trust, knowledge and respect – and it has to take place at all levels, from the Prime Minister down.
What would be a couple of features that struck you most about the summit ––and what would be your takeaways?
The summit provided an excellent net-working opportunity for those interested in breaking into the India market and learning from others experiences and insights. There was a palpable feeling of goodwill and interest in the India-New Zealand relationship, and it was great to hear the level of investment being made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in growing this important partnership. It’s also great to see how pro-active, positive and community-minded New Zealand’s Indian diaspora is, through organisations such as the INZBC as well as through community media, local traders and families. It’s such a dynamic and passionate group!
How could INZBC raise awareness of the India opportunity better in NZ?
Research and polling conducted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation shows that New Zealanders have limited, but growing, knowledge of Asia. For older New Zealanders, their day-to-day knowledge is strongly shaped by travel and by mainstream media – primarily by news headlines. For younger New Zealanders, social media is playing a much greater role shaping opinions. Our challenge at the Asia New Zealand Foundation is to continue to provide information and opportunities that connect New Zealanders to Asia.
We have found that through building knowledge and developing personal relationships, we can help New Zealanders to build the confidence and trust to invest more in the relationship. This impacts how New Zealanders plan their careers and invest their time, and informs where they want to travel.