Austchilli is celebrating 25 years in business by looking to the future and for founder and managing director David de Paoli, that’s getting food into space.
The ambitious target is the logical next step for David who thrives on challenge and innovation.
He has built the company from its humble beginnings with this thirst to be at the forefront of technology, always looking for creative solutions to producing, packaging and preserving fresh fruit and vegetables.
From the age of five David has been immersed in agriculture within the Bundaberg Region, with his parents moving to the area to farm sugarcane.
While he got his trade as a diesel mechanic, he always found himself coming back to agriculture.
“One farm, then I bought another farm, then I bought another farm I kept buying farms and I’m thinking this is not the way you do stuff we need to value add to what you’re doing,” David said.
“It was a very small team, a handful of us and we did everything, we were multi-skilled.
“From driving the machine, planting the chillies to selling the products – we had to be multi-skilled then.”
As the business grew so too did the Austchilli staff base but David was proud to say that most of the staff that had been there in those “early days” were still an integral part of the business today.
Staying at the forefront of innovation was always the focus of this expansion, with new divisions introduced like in-house agronomy and robotics teams.
“I say to my people, you need to be on the edge. We have to be out there with anything that’s new.
“The problem with anything that is new is it’s not usually commercialised or designed for the end user.
“So what we like to do is take a concept that’s almost ready, and then we make it ready, we make it commercially viable and workable.
“That’s why we’ve got our own robotic division.
“We are employing people that are actually programming robots.”
Technology has become a big part of what Austchilli does, also introducing automation in the fields.
Austchilli marks 25 years of innovation
David said it was one of the factors that classed the Bundaberg business as a world leader in the space of chilli and avocado production.
“We were the first to do HPP – high pressure processing – in this part of the world.
“We were the first to do aseptic chilli in this part of the world.”
David said technology had been created to develop aseptic milk but no one had started to use the technology for ingredients like chillies and herbs.
The technology stabilises a fresh product at an ambient temperature which then doesn’t have to be refrigerated, with no preservatives and a 12 month shelf life.
“We grabbed this technology off the shelf … then we designed the system.
“Then our customers said ‘oh, can I have garlic?’ and then ‘can I have ginger?’.
“The product was that good that people came back to us and said ‘I want more and more’.”
Another added bonus is that this process minimises waste, using the less attractive produce that would otherwise be binned.
David said the high pressure processing technology Austchilli used to produce its AvoFresh products, was a system designed for putting food into space for astronauts.
“It stabilises all the big, bad bacteria and it kills the bad bacteria, just like you’re boiling something to cook it.
“This does it with pressure and it gives you a far more nutritious product.”
It’s the success of AvoFresh, available at supermarkets in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, that has him convinced that he can create fresh, healthy food for space.
“They found ice on the moon now, so soon there may be colonies on the moon, so why not do food for space colonies,” David said.
“You can see it’s not far off.
“So that’s what we will be looking at.
“Nutrition is going to be part of our scope and the function of food.
“We’re going down the functional food path now to make sure that through our soil program, we’re getting a better nutritional food.
“Anything that starts with a high level of nutrition, if it’s something that hasn’t got much in it, there’s no point but something that’s got very high level of elements that are good for the human body is what we’ll be focusing on.”
Through the use of technology and optimising soil health David said they can look at which elements of a product are “accelerated or elevated” to increase its nutritional value.
“Sure, they’ll grow food in space,” he said.
“But what are we going to do meanwhile?
“So I reckon if we set ourselves up to say, ‘hey, we’re gonna be the space food people’.
“Who knows, in a couple of years’ time we could be providing food for space colonies – or five years’ time – coming out of Bundaberg.”
This may seem like an ambitious goal, but for David, it’s the only way he knows how to operate.
“That’s what gets me out of bed.
Repetitive stuff doesn’t get me out of bed, new exciting stuff gets me out of bed.
“Someone says why not retire but I say to do what?
“This is my retirement is enjoying to continually learn and being in front and taking people with me on the journey.”
Asked if he would ever move his business operations as Austchilli’s success continues to grow David’s reply was simple.
“No way, Bundaberg is the place.”