The days of big ideas, big investment and big returns only happening in big cities is officially a dated notion.
In some of Queensland’s smallest towns, global operations are functioning with little fanfare — alongside community centres and cane farms.
It’s true that ‘from little things, big things grow’ — and there’s a growing number of rural and regional innovators taking their big ideas to the world and taking their communities along for the ride.
Walkamin in far north Queensland isn’t the type of town you’d actively set about developing an international export company from.
With a population of less than 500 people, an hour’s drive from Cairns or a three-day drive from Brisbane, it’s a town that was built around the railway back in the 1940s.
It’s home to the Walkamin Research Station that’s involved in investigating crops including mangoes, peanuts, coffee, legumes, maize and Lucerne; and the Mount Uncle Distillery that won multiple accolades at the 2015 International Wine and Spirit Competition in Hong Kong for the rum, gin, vodka and whiskey products.
It’s also home to Natural Evolution — and company founded off the back of a moment of luck and nearly a decade of hard work that’s paying dividends on the global stage.
“Back in the beginning everyone thought we’d gone bananas — quite literally!” Natural Evolution Managing Director Krista Watkins remembered.
“But people are so much more receptive now to our product. We know consumers want real food that is honest and sustainable and produced with love.”
The product she and her husband Rob Watkins developed is highly nutritious banana flour.
“Rob is a second-generation farmer and for a long time his family was one of the largest banana growing families in Australia,” Krista said.
“In 2010 he accidentally drove over a hand of green, unripened lady finger bananas and saw the dust it produced in the rear-view mirror.
“That moment changed the course of our lives for ever!”
Intrigued by what had happened when the bananas were crushed, Rob Watkins started research in to if green bananas could produce a flour.
“We started off producing small six kilo batches of banana flour and within a few months couldn’t keep up with demand,” Krista said.
“We couldn’t believe it. Green bananas were always considered a waste product we’d feed to cattle or wallabies and here we were making money from the by-product.”
In 2014, the Watkins built the world’s first and only pharmaceutical grade banana flour factory, taking their weekly output to around eight tonnes of banana flour every week.
A few short years later an Advance Queensland Ignite Ideas Fund grant worth $250,000 allowed Natural Evolution Foods to scale-up and patent a manufacturing system that ensures consistently high-quality processing.
“We really have to stop some days and think, who would have ever imagined Walkamin would have career opportunities like online order manager or factory manager?” Krista Watkins said.
“We can see one of the most profitable parts of the business being our online selling, which we’re working towards developing further.”
It would be more than acceptable if the Watkins’ — who also have two young daughters — were to draw a line in the sand and focus on their current products and technology.
But in late 2018 they received 60 metric tonnes of broccoli leaf from south east Queensland to produce a protein powder — an Australian first product.
“We are trialling similar things with waste sweet potato and the potential for other products is huge, too,” Krista Watkins said.
“We want to work with primary producers from all over the state and throughout Australia to look at alternative uses for what’s traditionally considered a waste product.
“The raw material is there! It’s available and ready for alternative use — we must start thinking about things differently.
“Just because we’ve always done something a particular way doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it. That’s true innovation I guess and that’s what creates opportunities that keeps young people in rural and regional communities.
“We live in a state where regional innovation is actively supported and is designed so people have every opportunity to be successful — it’s a very good time to be a Queenslander!”
Krista Watkins is keen to point out however, that opportunities only work if the person pursuing them does too.
“The success Rob and I have had to date might look seamless to some people but there’s been a lot of late nights and early mornings and a lot of all-nighters,” Krista laughed.
“It comes down to the individual to take the opportunities when they’re presented, but then it’s up you to turn these ideas in to something living and breathing that can exist without any extra support.”
Read the Advance Queensland Strategy to find out more about how the Queensland Government is Building Our Innovation Economy.