Ulster University’s agri-food business centre aims to be global leader

World-class facilities and research focus to put business strategies at the heart of agriculture and food sector in Northern Ireland


If you think agri-graduates simply know what calving is or how to plough a field, think again. Our temperate climate, lush and long grass-growing season and farming heritage ensure the agriculture and food processing sectors are at the heart of the island of Ireland’s economy. And this booming sector has a wide range of job opportunities. “In Northern Ireland alone, they collectively account for around 70,000 local jobs,” says Professor Una McMahon-Beattie, head of the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ulster University.

Ulster University has set the bar in encouraging third-level education in this sector with their new Agri-Business Development Centre. Its aim is to become a global centre of excellence to provide sector-specific support to Northern Ireland’s local agri-food industry through the promotion of agri-food business education, in both teaching and research.

This centre will not only cover teaching and training, it will also cover research and innovation

“The centre has been established in response to the need to foster innovation in the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland. This has been highlighted by a number of key stakeholders like Food NI, Invest NI and NIFDA (Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association), and in several government reports. We have a range of experts that focus on everything from food choice and consumer behaviour to supply-chain management to innovation to agri-food tourism across the Business School but the centre really draws that expertise together into something more impactful,” says McMahon-Beattie.

Dr Lynsey Hollywood, lecturer in Consumer Management and Food Innovation at Ulster University, says that the centre differs from agriculture colleges in that the centre’s primary aim is to develop business skills within the sector and encourage entrepreneurial thinking. Their world-class facilities make it unique, she says, and it is ideal for those in the industry, as well as those interested in getting into the sector.

“This centre will not only cover teaching and training, it will also cover research and innovation. We are working with the industry to make sure we’ve got the most innovative thinking and relaying that to those coming in. At undergraduate level, we would be looking at those who want to get into the food industry and then at post-graduate level, people who are already in the industry but want to upskill in areas like digital marketing and business innovation. And recently, we are also seeing young farmers who are wanting to develop that entrepreneurial mindset by viewing their work is not just a labour of love, but a business,” says Hollywood.

The centre provides bespoke courses to support knowledge and skills development in agri-food business and industry-focused research and innovation support for agri-food business development to meet industry needs. “There are professional development courses, even for people who have not entered into third-level education before,” says McMahon-Beattie.

“We will be running a range of accredited CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and short courses in areas like volatility, social media, digital marketing, sales and selling and revenue management and growth strategies for the agri-food industry.”

It seems people have fallen back in love with good, local food and agri-tourism is one sector which has grown significantly.

“I think it’s a very strong sector economically, but I also think that recent developments in Northern Ireland, particularly the Year of Food and Drink, have shown the importance of everything from “farm to fork” and the whole process from primary producer right through to the evaluation by the customer,” says McMahon-Beattie.

The global landscape has changed dramatically for food production and achieving sustainable business growth and maintaining and establishing routes to market is proving difficult in this sector. Added to that is the particular challenges faced by Northern Ireland with Brexit, which includes the dependence on trade between Ireland and the UK and currency fluctuation.

I hope that we will establish a centre of excellence which is recognised internationally but which supports our local industry to compete on a global basis

“There is a vision that agri-food can support the Government’s aim to rebalance the economy through increasing economic competitiveness and building a larger, more export-driven private sector. Brexit reinforces the need for innovation and creativity in the sector,” says McMahon-Beattie.

And with Brexit comes a whole new set of rules and implications like access to labour, the loss of EU direct payments and market access and tariffs. However, McMahon-Beattie is confident that with change, comes opportunity; “I think what we need to consider is where we can help; so strategically move the thinking towards upskilling the industry.”

The centre has superb facilities providing knowledge support and assisting skills development. These include the Academy Restaurant, the Food and Consumer Testing Suite and the CME Financial Trading Laboratory.

The restaurant is one of only seven in UK Universities to have a licensed training restaurant where students can put their management skills and knowledge to the test. It is a live working environment for students studying a BSc Hons degree in Culinary Arts Management or BSc Hons degree in International Hospitality Management.

The Food and Consumer Testing Suite (FACTS) is an incubator to develop new products with state-of-the-art facilities. “FACTS includes everything from a food testing booth to product development kitchens to computer software that allows us to evaluate consumer sensory evaluations of food, which very few organisations have,” says McMahon-Beattie.

Both Hollywood and McMahon-Beattie hope the Centre takes agri-food to a global marketplace showing off the best of Irish. The centre will collaborate with their existing international network including St Joseph’s College of Food Marketing (Philadelphia), Delaware Valley Agricultural College (Pennsylvania),  Babson College (Boston), Harvard Business School and IDM Nations Campus (Sri Lanka).

“I hope that we will establish a centre of excellence which is recognised internationally but which supports our local industry to compete on a global basis. And to celebrate what’s best about agri-foods in Northern Ireland and beyond in the international marketplace. We want to invest our efforts in developing the workforce and the business processes used in it to ensure there is sustained growth in agri-food in order to sustain the economy in Northern Ireland,” says McMahon-Beattie.

For more, see ulster.ac.uk/faculties/ulster-university-business-school/agri-food-centre