Indigenous Business Month

The Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSIP) supports Indigenous Business Month every October as an opportunity to shine a light on the growing ranks of successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses across Queensland.

Year round, DATSIP delivers grants and workshops, and promotes the Queensland Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy, as part of its commit to achieve maximum economic participation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders.

During Indigenous Business Month 2019, DATSIP is taking a closer look at the growing number of Indigenous businesses making a splash in the modern global economy.

From remarkable work of the Myuma Group in the far west of the state, to the innovative approach of Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) on Stradbroke Island in the south-east corner, and all the way up to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, Indigenous businesses are making their presence felt.

Robert Clarke Builders

It was 1996 and young tradesman Robert Clarke was on the lookout for any work he could get his hands on. 

Born, raised and residing in Ipswich, 40km south-west of Brisbane, Clarke was ambitious, but knew his chances of securing meaningful work meant looking beyond the only city he had ever called home.

A phone call from a friend altered his direction forever.

“I had just got my builder’s ticket when a friend called to say he had some work for me at Thursday Island up in the Torres Strait,” Mr Clarke said.

“It was an awful long way from home for a bloke who grew up in and around ‘Ippy’ but I figured I needed the work and I thought if nothing else it would be a good experience to get up there and see that part of the world.

“Never in a million years did I expect when I left home in ‘96 that 23 years later I’d call this place home and I’d be overseeing one of the biggest companies in the region,” he said.

He’s built his single-man show into the major company Robert Clarke Builders (RCB), with annual turnover in excess of $30 million and more than 40 staff, mainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders.

To increase the local workforce’s capacity to handle government contracts that drive the economy through the Torres Strait Islands, the company’s training and apprenticeship program has drawn almost exclusively from the local community.

This year alone, RCB has added four new local apprentices to their ranks — all will receive their training from a fully-qualified Indigenous tradesman.

Mr Clarke says it’s been an incredible journey building his business while learning about one of the most remote corners of Australia. 

“I had always had a respect for the culture and history of the Aboriginal and Torres Islander people. But to earn the trust and be welcomed into the community is another thing,” Mr Clarke said.

“These are such remarkable people and I owe this community so much for giving me the chance to live the life I have,” he said.

Mr Clarke said his relationship with DATSIP and other government agencies was the lifeblood of the company.

“I can’t understate the importance of learning the processes required to tender for and monitor government contracts,” he said.

“For a number of years now, government work has been our sole source of income, so getting your paperwork right is pivotal.

“When I made the decision to remain here I had to accept that government contracts would be providing my income for as long as I was here, so I took two full months off and went through the courses and engaged people in the various department I was going to be dealing with and I learned what I needed to do if my company was ever going to become anything like what it has.”

Nowadays Mr Clarke has two full-time employees taking care of the tendering, safety and payroll duties.

“It’s about giving back to an area and a group of people that have given me more than I could have ever imagined,” Mr Clarke said.

“This is a special place and the Torres Strait Island community is full of good people.  Every week I get new guys in here looking for work and where ever I can I make sure the money that is being spent on the community remains in the community.

“They’re the people we need to support.  It’s what community is all about.”

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Dreamtime Kullilla- Art

Dreamtime Kullilla- Art is nestled in between Woody Point and Redcliffe in the seaside suburb of Clontarf, home of the famed Hornibrook Bridge and some of the most picturesque settings you will find anywhere along the South East Queensland coastline.

Here we find Michael Connelly and wife Jo working the counter at Dreamtime Kullilla-Art — a one-stop cultural shop – with its range of verified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander products ranging from high-end original artworks, to jewellery, authentic souvenirs, kitchen and homewares. 

It is a far cry from the one-person tent the duo first pitched at the Redcliffe markets almost 25 years ago.

Michael’s father is a Kullilla man, whose country covers the area in and around Thargomindah. His mother Muruwari People from Goodooga and Brewarrina region of north-west New South Wales.

“Michael’s connection to country, to his culture and the history of his people has a profound impact on his life.  It began with his art and as he developed that and learned more about its role in telling the stories and history of Aboriginal people, his areas of interest grew,” Ms Connolly said.

“Having experienced how powerful and influential that process can be, Michael and I then became passionate about helping other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women — particularly the younger generation, to embrace their history and culture in a similar way.

“We wanted them to know and understand their history and culture, their connection to their country – that was something to be proud of and to celebrate, when for a long time in this country they have been made to feel quite the opposite.

The Connollys have become a leading voice in the push to protect Australia’s unique Indigenous culture represented in authentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander products.

For all their success, their proudest achievement is that they are one of just a handful of retailers in the country able to guarantee customers that any product stocked on their shelves is verified as authentic. 

“So much of the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been lost over the past 200 years, and Michael and I both feel that what remains needs to be protected,” Ms Connolly said.

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Halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, a young workwear label is making great strides in its bid to localize a market away from cheap overseas suppliers.

ONABAC (pronounced on-a-back) workwear is a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned and operated business venture— the brainchild of the dynamic husband-wife duo Keith and Kelly Ryschka.

Formerly an officer with the Queensland Police Service, Keith admits to some trepidation when the idea of going “all in” on Kelly’s proposal to start their own business in Loganholme.

“Kelly knew the space well and she was adamant that there were areas that we could target, where a locally-owned and operated business would have an advantage just because of the reality that face-to-face interaction still counts for something particularly when you are operating with a customer base that is predominantly small to medium-sized operations,” Keith said.

“With my policing background I had plenty to learn in a hurry but I had always been keen on the idea of working for myself.

“So I went about learning what I needed to learn.  That is one piece of advice I would give to any aspiring small business owner.   Absolutely have a go – that is what this country is all about.  But at the same time be honest with yourself about what you know and what you need to learn.”

ONABAC has also worked closely with the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSP) to build their business profile, gaining vital contacts and sales at events DATSIP has co-hosted with the Queensland resource sector and Construction Skills Queensland.

“Getting to know what is out there – the various programs and staff who can support your business can be a game-changer,” Keith said.

“Like so many things in life, if you are willing to take the time to inform yourself about what is out there and reach out to those offering their assistance it can help you no matter whether you are just starting up or if you have been around forever and are looking for something new to freshen-up your business.”

Having targeted an annual growth of 80 per cent, ONABAC’s first 12 months blew that figure “out of the water”.

And while things have continued to expand at a rate far beyond even the most optimistic predictions the Ryschka’s had for their young business, the commendable philosophical approach has not wavered.

In just a few short years, ONABAC has established itself as a leader in the provision of workwear, PPE, corporate attire, business uniforms, hospitality, sporting and promotional merchandise and team apparel.

As is common with so many Indigenous businesses across Queensland, the success they have is truly seen as a success to be shared by the many, not the few.

“I don’t want to sound too preachy but we are big on giving back to the community and making sure we can help out those who need it.

“We like being in a position where we can make a difference and the more success we have as an organization, the stronger we have become and will continue to be about bringing others along with us.

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Ochre Sun

Mother of two Alana Kennedy is the businesswoman at the helm of Townsville-based business Ochre Sun Suncreen — a company committed to locally produced products using Indigenous Australian botanicals.

Alana Kennedy has participated in DATSIP’s grants and workshops, designed increase economic participation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Queensland’s.

“My initial idea wasn’t the sunscreen – it was a range of men’s cosmetics I developed using Indigenous botanicals called Ochre Bloke,” Ms Kennedy said.

“Only I didn’t account for the fact that I was thinking with the sense of a young Australian woman, so it just didn’t take off…”

It was a defining moment for Alana, a Waanyi and Kalkadoon woman, when she realized the lessons learned from her failed men’s line could lead to the development of a successful business.

“If I could give a piece of advice to any young business operator out there it is, if you believe in what you are doing, then don’t give up,” Alana said.

She developed an innovative all-in-one moisturizing sunscreen, and a “soft” launch of her new product via her Linked in account was coupled with a series of face-to-face meetings with resource-sector procurement officers and the Townsville City Council.

Two days later she took a life-changing phone call.

“July 13...I’ll remember that date till the day I die,” she said.

“I was driving my car when a member of the council called and matter-of-factly let me know they would supply all their venues and their outdoor operators with my sunscreen. They bought my entire first run of stock.

“As I grow this business I want to give other Aboriginal men and women that same feeling of pride and satisfaction, knowing the product represents the land we know and comes from our know-how.

“There’s something special in that and I am really committed to ensuring this business remains 100 per cent Indigenous from top to bottom so young boys and girls can see — examples of Aboriginal men and women going out and getting it done in the business world.

“We need them to know their best is good enough to compete with the best the world has to offer.”

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