Companies from Australia, France, Thailand, Switzerland, Pakistan and India had expressed interest in investing and starting joint ventures with Sri Lankan companies at the conclusion of the World Export Development Forum (WEDF) yesterday, which gave special focus to SMEs and fostering direct engagement between businesses, officials said yesterday.
The companies focused on several sectors including apparel, organic coconuts and spices, hotel building and business process outsourcing. These were the concrete engagements that were announced by the International Trade Centre (ITC) that was the main organiser of WEDF. ITC will track the gains made from the forum but insisted that it was the crucial opportunities given to companies to export from the conference that was more important than numbers.
“Many other business decisions would likely be made over the next few months or even longer. This was an opportunity for them to meet and relationships can be forged over a longer time for many of them,” International Trade Centre (ITC) Executive Director Arancha González told reporters at the end of the forum adding that Sri Lanka has great potential for south-south trade given the trade policies adopted by the Government.
“Breaking into exports for smaller companies is as important as the final investment. A study of 200 companies done by ITC has shown that over the last six years 56% of those companies have both increased and diversified their exports. For a small company even $ 100,000 or $ 200,000 in exports is a landmark improvement,” she noted.
The event also received a massive thumbs up from the private sector for including their input, which they claimed was the first such effort by successive Governments.
“This is the first time that a Government has included us in a forum of this nature even though we have been asking them for such an opportunity over many previous years,” said Exporters Association of Sri Lanka Chairman Fazal Mushin.
“We drove this team and wanted to put the best of Sri Lanka before the world. Previously we were never heard. We were told. We want to be involved because this is about our survival and we want to take ownership of this process. We are greatly encouraged by the open door policy of the Government,” he added.
State Minister for International Trade Sujeewa Senasinghe was upbeat about the opportunities before Sri Lanka and reiterated statements by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that the Government would roll out significant investment projects once it had set the policy foundation right.
“We wanted to open up engagement within the private sector. Our aim is to increase export earnings from the current $ 11 million to $ 16 million over the next few years, which is a very ambitious goal. We are working with ITC to create 2,000 new exporters. We have been pledged about $ 3 billion by China for various projects over the next three years and there are several other countries interested as well. So we should see a significant increase in investment at the end of next year,” the State Minister said.
ITC is the joint agency of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the World Trade Organization. The forum was billed as one of the largest trade promotions forums to date with hundreds of local and foreign companies participating in nearly 3,000 ‘speed dating’ sessions during the two days.
This is the first time Sri Lanka is hosting an event of this stature, and the resulting export opportunities are expected to be hugely beneficial to the economic development of the country, organisers said. The forum facilitates international trade and provides a platform for open discussions on the most pressing trade issues and challenges faced across the world, especially those in developing countries.
The Government is responsible for making trade possible, especially negotiating trade agreements and improving the business environment, the Executive Director pointed out, insisting that reforms to encourage exports had happened over the last six years. She stressed that the ITC had seen “significant progress” under the current Government.
The ITC in a Survey of Business in 2010 interviewed 500 Sri Lankan companies and conducted in-depth studies on 200 of them, across sectors and sizes, across the country. Six years later it was redone with a smaller number of those same companies to track changes and 56% of those companies that were polled in both in 2010 and 2016 said the business environment had improved, she noted.
The two-day event, which was held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), was themed ‘Trade for Success: Connect, Compete, Change.’
The 16th edition of the conference was organised by the International Trade Centre (ITC) and was co-hosted by the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade of Sri Lanka, with the Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EDB).
President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister of Development and International Trade Malik Samarawickrama led the line-up of high-profile speakers.
The conference featured 497 registered foreign participants and 320 local participants. From the total of 51 speakers and moderators, 39 were international speakers. The culmination of the assembly of policymakers, trade experts, trade analysts and business leaders from across the world would be to expedite export, business and partnership opportunities for Sri Lanka.