If the government could do one key thing to help rural and remote businesses get off the ground, it would be to create regional hubs that bring together all the skills and expertise people need to start their own business.
Country Womens’ Association of NSW president, Annette Turner, has years of experience in getting online businesses off the ground from her remote base of Polpah Station, which she owns and runs with her husband, Barry, at White Cliffs.
She says entrepreneurship the future for a lot of people in rural and regional areas. Yet, while it was easy to come up with an idea, she said taking it through to become a successful business was hard work.
“Because you’re remote, or because you’re in a small country town, you’re not taken seriously,” she said.
To assist in overcoming this hurdle, she said the CWA was calling for the development of rural business hubs which could provide business assistance and technical support.
She said as communications gradually improved, access to information grew, but the different departments somebody needed when getting started were all over the place.
“We need somewhere we can go to in terms of a business hub – and we need to be taken seriously,” she said.
We need somewhere we can go to in terms of a business hub – and we need to be taken seriously.
She said the rate of progression of technology also created other challenges, such as knowing what equipment or services were best suited to what they needed for the job.
“We don’t know what is out there, technology is moving so fast. We could be asked to a roundtable and asked what we want, but we have no idea what to ask for,” she said.
Meanwhile, the government committees were looking at these processes from the perspective of their bureaucrats, who often didn’t understand the needs of remote businesses, she said.
“The government is listening and asking ‘what do you want?’… we are being respected, but it’s hard when you don’t know what’s out there.”
A case in point was her 300 kilometre journey to town. With a normal phone set-up Mrs Turner only had signal for about 45km.
She was asked to trial a booster by Telstra. This cut the distance without signal to just 3km.
“That came out of nowhere – I didn’t know it was out there,” she said, referring to the technology and how a business hub could help bring this sort of information and technology to the people who need it.
She said people in isolated areas were also effectively funding the trials of these new technologies because they were early adopters and often using the gear before it had been rolled out commercially, but without this emerging technology, they don’t have connection.
“Technology will get better … hopefully we can get something to move us forward before we get left behind,” she said.
Other developments already making a difference included the Country Universities Centre, which was in the process of being replicated at Broken Hill.
Access to the support these centres provide reduced drop-out rates among remote students.
“I’m actually thinking of even doing a course,” she said, given the new centre planned for Broken Hill.
She said using technology in this way to bring education and training to isolated communities was the sort of thinking outside the square rural areas needed, and was not unlike the concept the CWA was pushing for its business hubs.
Mrs Turner said this sort of technology and service provision had implications not just for access to education and employment retention, but could also improve access to health services.
“We need to be able to keep up, add on to what we have,” she said.
Along with the farm, the Turners also run a software development business which creates documents for use with explosives.
It is essentially the forms that workers in mines can take underground with all the information they need about the gear they’re using.
Their business partner is based in Brisbane, so access to communications is critical. However, something as simple as doing updates currently requires a 300km trip by road to her mother’s place.
“We save our updates to visit Granny,” she said.
Another limitation is download speed, especially when they reach their monthly data limit.
On one occasion during a flock downsize because of drought, they had 14 b-double trucks loading sheep on and needed to download more national vendor declarations.
Mrs Turner had to drive to where she could get a better signal to download the forms.
“You can’t have b-doubles sitting there with sheep on,” Mrs Turner said.
Otherwise, she said rural towns had a lot to offer, but weren’t great at selling themselves.
She said communities needed to better at bundling up their benefits, such as affordable housing located where your kids could walk to school.
In White Cliffs, this included a free health clinic, access to dentists, a social club and an arts festival.