ETC’s virtual trade mission to Africa opens doors for Northeastern companies

November 1, 2021

This article appeared in the 2021-22 edition of Perspectives.

Container ship in port

A container ship in the Port of Durban, South Africa. Credit: Canva

Last fall, with international borders closed to stem transmission of the coronavirus, CSG’s Eastern Trade Council (ETC) saw an opportunity.

During an ETC board meeting, Zeynep Turk, senior trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center, raised the idea of a virtual trade mission to sub-Saharan Africa, a region with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies but few trade ties with companies in the Northeast. Africa’s rising middle class is young, tech-savvy, and entrepreneurial, but its markets have gone unexplored by many U.S. businesses, owing partly to concerns about safety.

Turk knew that some of those fears were overblown and felt there were opportunities that local exporters should not ignore. She understood how virtual trade missions might open doors to new markets that companies might be wary of visiting in person. Turk asked the board, “Why not take this opportunity in a year when we can’t travel, and explore a market that’s a bit more challenging?”

The other board members threw their support behind the idea. “Africa needs a lot of things as a continent, and there are a lot of opportunities in Africa for U.S. products and services as a whole,” said ETC board member Beth Pomper, who directs international trade for the state of Delaware.

ETC hired Zurcom International, an export promotion firm based in South Africa that had worked with trade offices in several ETC states. The company has staff based in 20 African countries. Zurcom provided prospective participants with an overview of African industries and business culture, identified appropriate business contacts, and guaranteed each participating company at least five virtual meetings.

Over the course of the month of June, 10 companies from six ETC states met with prospective clients in Botswana, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa. They worked in sectors including agriculture, information technology, and security systems. The fee for participation was $3,500 per company, though the state trade offices arranged to have some or all of the fee covered through the federal State Trade Export Promotion grant program, which offers states matching funds to help small businesses enter foreign markets.

In a report issued following the mission, Zurcom said many companies found value in the connections they made, despite some communications challenges. A brief COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa during the mission forced some businesses to rely on cell phone connections. In a few countries, Internet service was spotty. Pomper said these glitches did not impede Delaware businesses from generating important leads. “I’ve done eight virtual trade missions over the last year around the world, and this one was the most successful,” she said.

Among the five participating Delaware companies was Smart Kidz Clubs, whose app provides children and educators with access to a wide library of e-books. The company signed an agreement with a reseller in South Africa and was negotiating with another in Rwanda. Kango Express, a package forwarding company, was also negotiating an agreement that resulted from its virtual meetings.

Pomper explained that she had planned to lead an in-person trade mission to Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa in September to enable companies to follow up on these initial contacts and sign distribution agreements. But five weeks before the mission was scheduled to depart, those countries went into lockdown and the mission was converted into a virtual one. It is too soon to know how much business might ultimately result from these long-distance efforts. “It was so successful that we need to get there as quickly as possible, to have face-to-face meetings,” she said.

When Pomper does make it to Africa, it will be her first trade mission there. “It was ETC that started the ball rolling that got me thinking about Africa, and I appreciate it,” she said. “It’s the new ‘big.’”

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