World trade matters - Queen's award for export 2019
By Lord Popat, April 2019
Brexit. It is difficult to keep track of the many unfolding twists and turns. Regardless of the resolution, and irrespective of whether you voted to leave or remain, it is clear that Britain needs to be more outward looking. That is no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity.
The Queen’s Award for Exports is a wonderful way of recognising the achievements of exporters while promoting the immense value of becoming an exporting nation. I have lamented before that our exports base has languished for far too long. As a country we export in the region of 10%. Compare that to Germany, whose exports account for 30% of GDP and you get a sense of the challenge before us.
I have been sitting on this panel since I was appointed Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda in 2015. When I first began judging these Awards, I must admit I felt disappointed. We reviewed hundreds of applications; many of them have created the most amazing products that can literally change people’s lives; others have developed marketing and export strategies that are unique and generate huge amounts of business.
But every year I spotted a trend; notably that these businesses were exporting to the same pool of countries: Predictably, the EU. Occasionally, the US. Less commonly, to places like Saudi Arabia. But almost never to Africa and other emerging markets. For a country that claims to want to be more global, when it comes to exports, the UK has remained overwhelmingly continental.
Over the last two years, however, I have begun to notice a change. Africa and other parts of the developing world has increasingly been surfacing as a destination for UK exports. It is still a drop in the ocean, but I think it demonstrates that there is a sea change in attitudes. In this year’s Awards, a record number of shortlisted companies were successfully engaged in such markets as Ghana, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Botswana, Honduras, Peru, Mauritania and the DRC – markets that have been either been overlooked for far too long.
We are making progress, but these companies are in a relative minority. The irony is that there is a multitude of opportunities in the developing world in particular that are well-suited to UK businesses. Ambitious young markets are looking to build bridges, roads and hospitals. They want to develop their banking and financial services sectors. We have some of the best construction and engineering firms in the world and we boast the greatest financial services in the world. We need to get those companies out there!
Our task is twofold: first, we must continue to grow our exports base so that we can compete in a post-Brexit economy. And second, we need to alter businesses’ perceptions of emerging markets. Africa, like other parts of the emerging world, is reinventing itself in the most remarkable way and yet remains something of a kept secret. Every time I see an African leader – President Museveni was the most recent one – I am asked the same question: where have you been? We have so much in common. Surely we should be looking to our shared history to create our shared prosperity?
In future I would like to see the UK demonstrate greater gumption in emerging markets. I would like us to throw down the gauntlet in countries where we face fierce competition from established players such as China. I know we can do it. I am seeing terrific progress in Uganda and Rwanda. Alvan Blanch – one of the companies I was very pleased to see on this year’s nominations list, has had success in a number of African countries and is in the process of concluding a major agro-processing contract in Uganda. This despite the fact that China has had a foot-hold for years.
They are not alone, but we need more businesses to follow suit. The Queen’s Award has a vital role to play promoting these opportunities for the UK. They recognise and reward those companies that act on the opportunities, make the jump and take the risk – be it in Africa, South America, South East Asia and indeed the rest of the world. We must continue to spread the word, set the example and raise the bar for the export ambitions our future depends on.