Buy from the Bush founder Grace Brennan helped regional businesses generate $5 million in revenue. Image: supplied.

Buy from the Bush founder Grace Brennan helped regional businesses generate $5 million in revenue. Image: supplied.

Will the regions lead Australia's COVID-19 recovery?

COVID-19 is just one more challenge regional businesses have adapted to

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The problems of doing business in times of COVID-19 have allowed regional start-ups and small businesses to shine

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As covid restrictions came into force back in March, we witnessed remarkable scenes of panic buying from supermarkets and pharmacies. Shelves were stripped bare, not just of dry goods but toilet paper, hand sanitiser and face masks.

As politicians pleaded with Australians not to panic, a number of small scale producers and manufacturers quietly stepped in to fill the gaps left by the restrictions in imports and increased needs for certain products.

As has so often been the case in Australia's recent history regional businesses brought their innovative business skills to the fore, not just to keep their businesses up and running and staff employed but to supply our communities with goods and services we could no longer source.

Other industries were hit with a need to find new buyers for their products as shutdowns saw restaurants close and tourism dry up overnight.

Much of this new revenue flowed back into rural communities...the profit generated from sales was enough to keep the bills paid, the lights on, food on the table, and water in the tank - Buy From the Bush founder Grace Brennan

One industry in particular reacted promptly, with many of Australia's distilleries and artisanal spirit makers stepping into the gap to supply hospitals, medical centres and places with high people traffic with hand sanitiser to help prevent the spread of the virus.

North of Eden, an award-winning artisanal gin distillery on the south coast of NSW were approached by local doctor Duncan Mackinnon to supply the community with hand sanitiser in the early days of COVID-19. Showing the importance of local ties the founders of North of Eden, Gavin Hughes and Karen Touchie used their industry contacts to source the necessary raw ingredients, whilst community organisations such as the Lions Club stepped in to help with the financing.

North of Eden founders Gavin Hughes and Karen Touchie turned production over to hand sanitiser. Picture: David Rogers

North of Eden founders Gavin Hughes and Karen Touchie turned production over to hand sanitiser. Picture: David Rogers

Other businesses such as Cheese Therapy, an online cheese retailer have moved their business model to focus on small artisanal cheesemakers in Australia who have been badly hit by the summer's bushfires and the COVID-19 shutdown of the hospitality industry.

Read more: Case study- Cheese Therapy

Meanwhile Orange-based engineering company TPR Engineering have expanded production from making motorsports equipment to include face shields and other related equipment to assist in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

97% of businesses working with Buy From the Bush are owned and run by women. Image: Shutterstock.

97% of businesses working with Buy From the Bush are owned and run by women. Image: Shutterstock.

The thing that unites these businesses is their location in regional Australia and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The adaptability isn't new. Grace Brennan founded Buy From the Bush in 2019 to promote small businesses in drought stricken regional areas.

Buy From the Bush started as a facebook group which described itself as "A showcase of beautiful things" to buy from rural communities facing drought. A small way to invest in their future and help "#stuffthedrought" has ballooned beyond all expectations.

A recent report released by AlphaBeta Advisors looked at the impact Buy From the Bush has had on the economy of regional Australia and concluded that between October 2019 and February 2020 the social media campaign generated business worth $5 million with the average business seeing a 300 per cent increase in business.

Read more: Local tourism supports small businesses during COVID restrictions

Speaking to Grace Brennan, it's obvious that the benefit of the campaign is more than financial. "Much of this new revenue flowed back into rural communities...the profit generated from sales was enough to keep the bills paid, the lights on, food on the table, and water in the tank," Mrs Brennan said.

The success also added to the employment opportunities in drought-affected areas with one in five businesses featured in a Buy from the Bush social media campaign hiring new staff. This doesn't even consider the number of entrepreneurs who were inspired to bring their business ideas to life after seeing the success of other start-ups.

This is supported by data recently published by the Regional Institute of Australia which saw a 22 per cent rise in new job advertisements in regional Australia for June. This compares to just 11 per cent for the capital cities over the same period.

Whilst RIA's chief economist Dr Kim Houghton cautions that the figures are for one month only it does show the importance of the regional economy in helping Australia's recovery from COVID-19.

Of course, the impact of regional jobs isn't just to benefit the economy. For businesses working with Buy From the Bush, 97 per cent are owned and run by women and almost half of them have said the platform has allowed them to develop new skills.

Regional travel is the destination for Australians as COVID-19 restrictions prevent international travel. Image: Shutterstock.

Regional travel is the destination for Australians as COVID-19 restrictions prevent international travel. Image: Shutterstock.

In fact the success of Buy From the Bush has sparked a multitude of other initiatives, all looking to support small and regional businesses and startups. Mrs Brennan and her team have stepped in to help support local tourism in the wake of the collapse of international tourism during COVID-19.

One Buy From the Bush spinoff, Stay in the Bush, is an online rural-accommodation directory to inspire people to connect with rural communities.

The initiative offers people in rural Australia the opportunity to develop a new revenue stream. "(There is) great value in encouraging Australians to go wandering and exploring new regions, connecting with rural communities and supporting local business whether drought-affected or not," Mrs Brennan said.

"It's about inspiring people to consider a holiday somewhere they may never have been."

With no obvious timeline for when international travel will reopen, Australians will continue to look for new experiences and travel opportunities closer to home. Which means that Australian consumers will continue to seek out new businesses, whether they be boutique cheesemakers, artisanal distilleries or Australian-made PPE.

"When it comes to buying local consumers increasingly want to connect with a story and want to know where their products come from," Mrs Brennan said.

"We hear time and time again how people in the city love investing in bush businesses and the joy that comes from truly connecting with someone who has created beautiful products or local shop-owners telling us of repeat customers who want to support their business.

"It is a reminder for us all of how communities come together during the toughest of times."

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