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Learning through Indigenous business: The role of vocational education and training in Indigenous enterprise and community development


27 July 2005

ISBN 1 920896 55 4 print; 1 920896 56 2 web


This report explores the ways in which Indigenous Australians are learning through enterprise and small business development. It reveals that this learning will be more effective if it takes into account that Indigenous experience differs by location, with remote areas offering a significant challenge. Learning through Indigenous business is most effective where learning is tied to earning; the content is customised; it is carried out in parallel to real work; and is put into practice through employment in commercial business.


About the research

  • Support for learning in Indigenous business must be sensitive to location. Remote areas offer a significant challenge.
  • Learning through Indigenous business is most effective where learning is tied to earning; the content is customised; it is parallel to real work; and it is applied through employment in commercial businesses.
  • Businesses operated primarily for social and community benefits are not ideal training grounds for Indigenous people who wish to learn how to run a commercial business


Executive summary


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are, on average, subject to very high unemployment, low average wages and relative exclusion from paid employment and commercial enterprise. The question as to whether, and in what ways, Indigenous Australians are learning through, and being engaged in enterprise generally, and in business in particular, is the basis of this report.

This research brings together new and emerging perspectives of Indigenous community and enterprise development and learning at either end of the remote-urban continuum in Australia. It explores the implications for learning through and from Indigenous enterprises. The research combines perspectives and findings from other studies on Indigenous experiences at either end of the demographic and commercial enterprise spectrum, in particular, from remote Indigenous communities in north-western Australia, to Indigenous people in major capital cities in south—eastern Australia.

There has been a growing recognition that program effectiveness, including education and training program effectiveness, can be enhanced by acknowledging and taking into account that Indigenous experience differs by location. Previous research has claimed that insufficient attention has been given to the diversity of Indigenous people's reality, that is, to its spatial specificity, or to recognising the importance of paid and unpaid work which people are already doing in their own communities. This report also argues that location does matter.

If an Indigenous Australian is born in a geographically remote Indigenous community, the opportunities for formal education and training and profitable enterprise or employment within that community are most limited. Although enterprise opportunities might be most feasible culturally in remote communities, other considerations make conventional viability and sustainability of community businesses questionable in these environments.

New data identified in this report expand assumptions on the relationship between business service inaccessibility and economic independence at the geographically remote extremities. There is strong evidence that the combined effect of service inaccessibility of Indigenous people in remote areas and the 'metro-centrism' of service 'delivery' are at least two of the major barriers experienced by Indigenous people in conducting business enterprises.

The purpose of this study

This research integrates and builds on perspectives from existing literature and is underpinned by reference to a number of contemporary and emerging policy perspectives on Indigenous enterprise and learning. The project was advised by an Indigenous steering committee.

The project primarily involved an analysis of the extensive post-1990 literature on learning-related aspects of Indigenous enterprise and small business development, synthesised with new interview data and findings from field research undertaken by the authors in capital cities in south-eastern Australia and remote communities in Northern Territory and Western Australia. It is inclusive of all main areas of Indigenous enterprise (land, community, cultural, commercial).The field research was conducted via observation and recorded interviews. Further research included document research and telephone interviews.

In essence, the researchers investigated the extent to which vocational education and training (VET) and VET resources about business are (or are not) responsive to the difficult, unique and diverse requirements of Indigenous learners in both urban and remote contexts in Australia. The key questions asked by this project are:

  • Where is Indigenous business happening?
  • What is working?
  • What is not?
  • What can be done to move ahead?

Indigenous business

In an examination of Indigenous business it is important to acknowledge that many Indigenous businesses are small businesses in Indigenous community contexts and are often unlike mainstream businesses. In particular, they are more likely:

  • to have their origins and connections in non-commercial or subsidised community-based activities and ventures (for example, community stores and services, the Community Development Employment Program and Aboriginal cooperatives)
  • to have some history of non-Indigenous management or financial control and be community-owned rather than owner-operated
  • to emphasise community usefulness and community employment rather than simply profit on capital.

By virtue of being much more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged and without inherited wealth, even Indigenous people with a good product and a means for marketing it, have far less capacity to access the capital required to establish a business than do many prospective non-Indigenous business owners. In remote communities in particular, the limited opportunity for individual asset ownership is a major barrier to securing business capital.


The most important finding from this research is that support for learning in Indigenous business differs by context, and must therefore be sensitive to Indigenous location. The problems associated with conducting Indigenous businesses in a non-Indigenous business world are profound in both urban and remote areas. Moreover, the Indigenous world view, situations and solutions differ significantly by context. The challenge is that potential benefits of Indigenous business are greatest in areas where business services are most limited, that is, in the most geographically remote areas.

It is concluded that models for profitable and sustainable Indigenous business development which also facilitate Indigenous community development are of particular importance, but they are under —developed in many remote community contexts. This is due to a lack of accessibility to business services, commercial labour markets, commercial business models and sites, and lack of incentives for learning about and particularly through Indigenous business-as stressed in the report's title.

Another important finding identified in this project are the tensions that exist between, on one hand, the often unrealistic expectations of wide benefits for communities involved in Indigenous business, and on the other hand, the limited rewards for particular individuals with responsibilities for those businesses. These tensions are exacerbated when businesses which are not profitable in an economic sense are supported, promoted and staffed as if they were profitable.

Businesses and employment schemes operated primarily for their social and community benefit can be justified on a number of grounds. However, they are seldom commercial businesses and are not ideal training grounds for Indigenous people working in, operating, developing or mentoring commercial businesses. There is evidence from this research that operating Indigenous quasi-businesses primarily through non-Indigenous managers can exacerbate situations of Indigenous welfare dependency, particularly in the most remote and socioeconomically disadvantaged locations.

The project has also shown that learning through Indigenous business is most effective where that learning is tied to earning, customised to the context, developed parallel to real work and applied in practice through employment in businesses that are commercial. Indigenous community business is often a springboard for, but not always a suitable or sufficient learning environment or preparation for, truly commercial business and the development of independent Indigenous entrepreneurs or widely marketable business employment skills.

Finally, there is evidence that learning through business is critical. Funding priority might be given to appropriate, in-community training and supporting resources. In some cases this training will involve familiarisation with the 'fundamental' economic issues that non-Indigenous Australians take for granted. In other cases it will mean developing resources that do not focus on white, urban models, but instead tell the stories of Aboriginal entrepreneurs. In some instances, training and resources may be in a traditional language. If training cannot be flexible in its content and delivery, it cannot be responsive.



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