Support for exporters would soon show results

Caroline Williams, Chief Executive, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce

More companies are exporting - and to the fastest-growing markets. But targeted support will more than pay for itself by connecting businesses to new growth opportunities in some of the world’s biggest economies.

Last week, the British Chambers of Commerce published the first of three reports on the state of the export economy Exporting is Good for Britain But....Market Barriers Stifle Opportunities. The report draws on the findings of their annual international trade survey – the largest of its kind in the UK with well over 4,600 responses including many Norfolk exporters.

The aim is to go beyond the dry and volatile statistics of official trade data to engage with the experience of businesses in the real world: are they actively exporting, and if so – to where? What are their aspirations? What do they feel about particular markets? What are the major opportunities and challenges they face?

The results show that Chamber members continue to grow more export-oriented, with 39% actively trading into overseas markets compared to 32% in 2012.  And while the EU remains the most popular market, both for current and ‘potential exporters’, more member businesses now trade with the Middle East and Africa than with North America (57% versus 47%).  This is likely to reflect two things: the solid growth performance of economies like the UAE and Qatar with their demand for oil and gas equipment, infrastructure and construction expertise (all big areas of strength for UK exports); and the role of the Arabian peninsula as a globally-important transhipment hub.

But for me, the most striking finding of this report relates to how businesses view the fastest-growing markets. The conventional wisdom is that the UK as a whole needs to re-orient its export activity towards fast-growing economies like Brazil, India, China and South Africa (the so-called ‘BRICS’). But what do businesses themselves feel about these markets? Exporters that have entered these markets are confident in their ability to expand sales there and view them as their top prospects for growth. The positive experience of companies that have made the leap into these markets hints at the huge potential for the UK to grow its export base if the support is there to help them connect to these markets.

So what do we need to do? Whenever I talk to exporters thinking about entering these kind of markets for the first time the strong feedback, particularly from small and medium businesses, is: solid leads on contract opportunities would give the juiciest incentive to commit. That’s why the Chamber welcomed the Government's ambition to develop the network of British Chambers and other business groups overseas, initially in 20 priority markets, as a practical platform for exporters to access new markets.

This programme must now be implemented and at scale: as in Germany, France and other developed nations, supporting a firm two-way trading link between UK and overseas Chambers would enhance the future export competitiveness of the UK. Greater access to trade shows and increased funding of UK pavilions at key trade fairs must also be prioritised.

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