First Nations entrepreneurs are still fighting the ‘white boys’ club’, while the big banks are trying to improve

Rayleen Brown has overcome many obstacles to start a small catering business, and now she could face one of the biggest yet: getting a loan from Australia’s private finance sector.

“I’ve always been a little afraid to enter that space,” she says.

The Arrernte and Ngangiwumirri woman started a company many years ago that pioneered bush food production in the Northern Territory.

Knowing many people’s reluctance toward homemade ingredients, Rayleen and her co-founder Gina added dessert quandong to baked goods and found ways to use marinade recipes passed down from her father’s relatives.

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

“People thought we were crazy. Back then it was more of a novelty.”

Their business, Kungas Can Cook, blossomed to include a cafe in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and catering for city events. They hired other natives and channeled the money back into the community.

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

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

After the failure of the pandemic, today the grandmother is trying to build her business again. She wants to set up a commercial kitchen in Mparntwe to produce pre-packaged bush food infusions for sale in shops and supermarkets.

To do that, Rayleen needs an injection of cash. It is here that First Nations finance experts say they will face many entrenched and institutional obstacles.

How many Indigenous entrepreneurs are there in Australia?

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

ABS data collected from the latest 2021 census shows there are almost 18,000 registered Indigenous “owner managers”, which is not a fully representative way of calculating the true scale of entrepreneurs in the sector.

a woman with a cookbook looking into the distance
There is limited data on Indigenous business in Australia.(ABC News: Xavier Martin)

There are also about 19,000 people registered as directors of Indigenous corporations, but again, this is not a widely accepted measure.

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

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

“The contributions of First Nations companies and corporations have rarely been mentioned in the discourse on the Australian economy.”

The researchers noted that one of the big factors driving growth in the sector was the Commonwealth’s Indigenous Procurement Policy, which was enacted in the past decade to encourage the federal government to procure jobs from First Nations.

In the financial year 2020-21. this led to 10,920 contracts worth $1.1 billion. Data for next year will arrive soon.

Meanwhile, separate data from Indigenous business organization Supply Nation shows its 700 members spent $3.8 billion with verified First Nation suppliers last financial year. That’s a 62 percent increase on the previous financial year and includes spending by government, not-for-profit organizations and corporate customers.

NAB’s major banking projects. The volume of domestic business will continue to grow at a rate of 4 percent until 2026, which is double the projection for the wider economy.

NAB positions itself as a leader in space lending, with many venture capital firms also creating funding sources for indigenous entrepreneurs.

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

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