The head of an influential business organisation believes around 2,000 jobs can be created in the Highlands following forecasts of 15% growth in the food and drink industry over the next five years.
David Whiteford, chairman of North Highland Initiative (NHI) said a survey by the Bank of Scotland found that two-thirds of companies in the sector expect to take on more people over the next five years, leading to around 10,000 new jobs nationally.
Mr Whiteford says that the Highlands can play its part in securing up to 2,000 of these, but there has to be better coordination between support agencies
He said: “If you take oil and gas away, the food and drink industry becomes the growth sector and it is amazing that we hit targets time and time again, and are now talking about a £14billion industry nationally.
“What better way to tell a story about food and drink than to attract people to the Highlands, but we also need to re-format the industry as well as creating an environment where start-ups are encouraged.
“Working with the various agencies and banks, young entrepreneurs could be mentored and given support on things like product development and packaging, which products are right for which market, and access to retailers.”
His own organisation, which was set up in 2005 to support fragile rural economies, can provide advocacy and leadership, Mr Whiteford said.
He added: “Products like Highland Fine Cheeses, in Tain, which sell around the world, and the North Highland brand, sold in 63 outlets in the south-east of England, are a great example of what can be done.
“We have people coming here as a result of what they have bought in the shops, so we want to do more of this, to promote premium products that are traditional and unique to our area, and in turn enable producers to employ more people.
“Food and drink culture go hand-in-hand with our history and Gaelic heritage, and there are opportunities there, particularly if people adopt a can-do attitude.
“Circumstances are sometimes not always ideal, but it is very do-able, all about coming together, working with agencies, and having a unified strategy as how they can create and grow the industry.”