Economic view: Trade missions no substitute for boots on the ground

Malachy Mitchell
Malachy Mitchell

Malachy Mitchell

If farmers are to feel the benefit of global exports in their pockets, brand-building exercises such as the upcoming Irish trade mission to West Africa must be matched by serious commitments from exporters to markets that will pay for a high-value food product.

The value of internationally-traded agri-food products has more than doubled over the last decade and exceeds €700bn.

Most of the growth in demand is taking place in emerging and developing markets where demographics, social trends and income growth are leading to increased demand for food.

This particular growth trend is primarily of interest to countries that can produce low-cost food commodities.

Another emerging market trend - that is of greater interest to exporters from high-cost countries such as Ireland - is the growing segment of discerning middle-class consumers, who value a high-quality and traceable product.

It is important that exporters identify the kind of growth market with which they are dealing.

For example, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) is an attractive market in terms of population and income growth.

More than 75pc of the world's population growth over the next 15 years will come from this region, which has a forecasted average economic growth rate of 8.4pc, which will facilitate a 35pc increase in per-capita GDP over the next five years.

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However, the top-line figures are deceptive, since these figures reflect a growing population, which will continue to seek low-cost foods.

Even in higher-income countries in the Middle East, the average consumer remains extremely cost-conscious, is origin-blind and has limited brand loyalty.

For example, the typical Middle Eastern consumer does not distinguish between lamb and mutton.

Consider the consequences of this market profile for the Irish beef and dairy sector, our largest farming sectors.

From the perspective of the importer, Ireland is just one potential global source for these products. These emerging markets are all about price, with little opportunity for added-value, even at the most basic level.

In contrast, China offers enormous potential for value-add due to its expanding middle class.

Although its economic growth has waned recently, it is still expected to account for 65pc of the billion new middle-class consumers forecast for 2030.

Over the long-term, these markets will become more sophisticated, which will create opportunities for high-value Irish food products.

However, unless exporters commit to these markets in the short-term, they are unlikely to reap the benefits that might emerge over the medium and long-term.

The upcoming trade mission by Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia to West Africa should be considered in this context. Trade missions are useful for establishing links with potential export markets and facilitate companies who are trying to get a foot in the door.

A lot of effort should be put into establishing Brand Ireland as a quality brand.

Initiatives such as Origin Green identify this island as a safe and sustainable source of food. The on-going challenge for Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia is to differentiate the offering and to look for niche opportunities in which Ireland has a competitive advantage.

However, there is a limit to what can be achieved through trade missions.

The real burden of market development must rest with firms that are committed to building sales and investing in key target markets.

Commitment necessarily means the investment of resources - of people, time and money.

While Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia can provide guidance and support, this is not a substitute for direct investment.

The 'feel-good factor' following a trade mission counts for little unless followed up by the development of deep market insights, combined with an understanding of the supply chain.

In our experience, this is best achieved by establishing a local presence, either through direct investment or through the establishment of a joint venture.

Quick sales - of the wrong product at the wrong price - are not the answer.

Malachy Mitchell is managing director of Farrelly & Mitchell an international food and agribusiness consultancy with offices in Dublin and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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