Growth program helps Indigenous businesses expand globally

Growth program helps Indigenous businesses expand globally

RMIT University is empowering First Nations-owned organisations to export offshore through an Australian-first course co-designed with First Nations businesses and community leaders.

The Indigenous business sector is one of the fastest growing in Australia – in 2019 there were 12,000–16,000 Indigenous-owned businesses, according to The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Some have expanded globally but for others, the international export market remains a dream.

RMIT Activator’s Trade Routes program is helping these businesses turn dreams of selling offshore into reality.

Now in its second year, the global growth program works with Indigenous businesses to build their capacity and ready them for international expansion.

Co-designed with Indigenous businesses and community leaders, the program is the first of its kind in Australia.

It aims to ignite a community of empowered, high-growth Indigenous enterprises and accelerate cultural, social and economic prosperity for Indigenous Australians and the wider community.

Photo of the 2021 Trade Routes cohort of First Nations owned and operated businesses The 2021 Trade Routes cohort of First Nations owned and operated businesses.

Bevan Mailman is the Managing Director of Australia’s first national Indigenous law firm Jaramer Legal and Chair of the Trade Routes Steering Committee.

A proud Bidjara man from the Carnarvon Ranges and Warrego River, South-West Queensland and Ngati Porou and Te Arawa from Aotearoa, Mailman said Indigenous people have a strong desire to determine their own future, but the biggest challenge for many of us is to believe.

“Trade Routes is about allowing people to dream again, being bold and capturing the significant opportunities that are out there,” Mailman said.

“The Indigenous community worked with RMIT and non-Indigenous supporters in the co-design process, testing the program every step of the way.”

Last year, 12 businesses ranging from sole operators to more established organisations participated in the nine-month accelerator program.

While the businesses were diverse in size and nature – ranging from fashion and art to education and food products – they shared experiences and established a strong support network.

RMIT Activator Industry and Innovation Fellow Margaret Ledwith, who led the design and delivery of the Trade Routes pilot program, said participants innovated their business from day one.

“Trade Routes allows the cohort to leverage the knowledge, technologies and global networks of RMIT while determining the best way forward for their business,” she said.

“Participants work alongside fellow Indigenous businesses, guided by experienced facilitators who understand the cultural framework of the participating businesses.” 

PIcture of Bob Williams and Margaret Ledwith during the Trade Routes Launch. Bob Williams and Margaret Ledwith during the Trade Routes Launch.

Yarn Strong Sista is one of four businesses from the pilot program who is now embarking on a global export path.

The education company, which provides insights to Indigenous culture through early learning storytelling, art sessions and training, has developed a range of classroom resources from toys and games to teacher guides.

Before Trade Routes, Yarn Strong Sista had identified the potential to export to the US but didn’t know how to take the first steps.

“Trade Routes was fantastic for us,” said Yarn Strong Sista Company Secretary Bob Williams.

“It put us on the right track and opened our eyes to some of the things we had to think about – what the marketplace is like overseas, how we are going to handle logistics, the need to get a foothold in the market and how we might establish that,” he said.

The success of Trade Routes’ pilot led to a partnership with Global Victoria to extend the program and expand nationally.

Course costs for are fully funded through government support and Victorian participants could receive a $7,500 grant upon completion to help implement their market entry strategy.

This year’s Trade Routes program has shifted from the pilot nine-month accelerator model to offering more flexible pathways, including an online learning platform and 90-day Global Accelerator program.

It’s designed to give a comprehensive understanding of what goes into global expansion, with content covering packaging, freight, eCommerce, international markets and more. 

Find out more about the Trade Routes Program.


Story: Maddy Pattison and Charlotte Du Rieu


  • Business
  • Industry
  • Indigenous

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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.