Business Times

Sri Lankan exports need a major makeover – urgently!

By Bernard De Livera

For the Sri Lankan export sector this is a most momentous period. Though the recent global economic crisis is somewhat behind us it has definitely left behind deep-seated worrisome challenges mostly to be faced by developing countries such as Sri Lanka. Most developing countries are already head-on facing the negative impact the crisis has brought about on commerce and industry.

To say that the way international business is done today has changed due to the crisis is too much of a simplification. If penetrating the most lucrative markets was difficult before, with the advent of the crisis, things have not got easier in any way or form. For all intents and purposes the recent crisis was more of a game changer. This change is experienced even by developed countries. Hence, it is logical to believe that the Sri Lankan export sector is still faced with challenging times now and in the foreseeable future.

The foremost question is as to how Sri Lanka could turn tables, get a handle on things and get back in the game. To do so an absolutely intelligent and professional response is the need of the hour. The Sri Lankan export sector needs to get the bull by the horns and act proactively. It is an open secret that times are tough for exporters everywhere and will remain so for a while. Therefore there is a need for true introspection and out of the box thinking not only to counter the negative effects faced by Sri Lankan exports, but also to address productivity and competitiveness issues on a substantial basis to get ahead for the long term. Thankfully it could be done.

Right away there is a need to revisit the export marketing practices, processes and preferences in Sri Lanka and replace the current strategy with a well thought out, changed, modified and upgraded strategy developed in accordance with the current global reality. Needless to say what Sri Lankan exporters are good at and could become good at if required must be front and center and included in the equation. The bottom line is that radical changes need to be made and implemented to introduce new, viable and sustainable income streams from exports. Likewise, the need to go after new export markets, systematically and sustainably increasing export sales volumes to countries currently Sri Lanka exports to is critically important. Introducing and implementing bottom-up changes to the market access strategies, methodologies and processes currently employed by Sri Lankan exporters to sell to the Americas in particular has to be re-engineered. The importance and potential in the Americas which region is vigorously pursued by China, India, Brazil and other rapidly emerging countries must be viewed and approached with new eyes and attitudes. To do so ground-breaking new thinking and new ideas are a crucial need.

As a first step what Sri Lanka currently exports should be inventoried and brought to the table to be thoroughly scrutinized and evaluated for future potential, suitability, sustainability and profitability. Modern management does not have room for sentimentalities and sacred cows. Everything currently done by Sri Lankan exporters must be put under the microscope to determine how best it could be successfully exported while accruing maximum benefits especially in the current context. Simultaneously, there should be a credible professional study to determine Sri Lanka’s strengths compared to the current and future global buying trends. Once these two factors are duly clarified and reconciled, necessary changes need to be effected with a view to putting in place a renewed; modern and effective export strategy that will render the efforts of Sri Lankan exporters distinctly more productive. Doing international business is similar to striking a moving target. It is a task that needs a lot of preparation, smarts and intelligence. Basically, while it is admittedly no easy task, it is a task that needs to be undertaken and implemented on an urgent and priority basis.

To succeed in achieving remarkable results from a cohesive and dynamic export campaign, a better job needs to be done in facilitation by the state support apparatus especially for the new and growing exporters. They need to be empowered with relevant and timely information, access to quality market intelligence and empowerment within an enabling environment. Exporters need to be able to receive all the support and help they need preferably under one roof and definitely within an acceptable time frame. It is imperative that Sri Lankan exporters be able to clearly recognize as to what products, services and projects have global demand and appeal and in which precise markets the potential exist. Then they need to be able to be fully cognizant of what exactly the buyers are looking for from a needs, expectations and conformity perspective. As an integral part of enabling market access using modern and effective tools any current exporter or prospect should be able to freely access solid, quality, current and relevant market intelligence to understand what their competitors are doing.

Exports bring about measurable positive results to the economies of all countries irrespective of if it is a developed or developing one. One of the key benefits of having a vibrant export sector for a developing country such as Sri Lanka is the ability to add new well paying and sustainable jobs on an on going basis. Job growth is the anchor of a solid economy. The other of course is the earning of valuable and much needed foreign exchange which is the primary goal of most developing countries. It is a given fact that income generated by exporting products, services and projects improve the overall performance and well being of a country’s economy by leaps and bounds. An important bi-product of a flourishing export sector is the improvement of the quality of life of the individual worker and his/her family.

The fundamental reason for even major economies as the US, Japan, China, India, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil etc., to pay close and actual attention to export market development is the serious direct and indirect benefits it brings in proportion to the export income generated. The Sri Lankan government and the private sector are paying to the development of tourism in Sri Lanka is admirable. Exports, needs to be placed on a similar if not higher pedestal and the sooner this is done the better it is for the country.

One of the indisputable facts in favour of Sri Lankan exports is the fact that the Sri Lankan businesses in general and the exporters in particular are a highly resilient lot. They have proven over and over again that they have great creativity and survival skills to pick themselves up and go forward irrespective of the severity of the challenges they have to face. Sometimes, the challenges have been daunting with some of them lingering for decades. However the Sri Lankan exporters small and large have stayed right on top of their game and consistently driven the export sector forward irrespective of the local or global business environment. They should be unequivocally recognized as a major asset and harnessed to the fullest to lead the expansion and development of the export sector.

The government needs to consider acting quickly to tie up and bring together this rare strength and put in place a dynamic policy framework to create an enabling environment for the manufacturers, service providers, project implementers and exporters to get new markets and new business. There is no question that creating such an atmosphere takes a lot of effort but if Sri Lanka is to truly benefit from the opportunities available from the new world order it is indispensable that the export sector is meaningfully equipped, prepared and energized. It can be done and it should be done.

Not modernizing and upgrading the export marketing apparatus of the country and getting it to work on oiled wheels is to invite and coddle failure which will inevitably lead to a decline in the overall export sector. Timing is everything and the time to get all the ducks in a row is now. To achieve this goal of creating a truly enabling environment for the export sector the government and the exporters and prospective exporters need to tune into the same frequency. They need to build a solid relationship which will lead to be a rich partnership.

Following the money is the most prudent way to get ahead. The government needs to make serious positive changes and adequately facilitate the exporters to effectively conduct a professional diagnostic workout on each product, service or project, ensure true export readiness of the item to be exported and the company doing the exports so that the exporters could aggressively go after new markets, new business and thereby greater profits. What is required is not a lot more money and resources but to identify and prioritize the needs with the objective of infusing a sense confidence and belonging among the exporters while treating the current palpitations. When every exporter understands that there indeed is a stellar plan in place they are most likely to engage to the fullest which will spontaneously propel them to embrace and become active stakeholders of the project of the government to raise the bar and increase export income to US $ 20 Billion. Perhaps, it is a great opportunity to put in place a comprehensive export charter between the government and the exporters. The guidance and support of the EDB, National Chamber of Exporters, who are doing a great job, and all the other chambers will be a great beginning.

(The author is President of NATE Canada and is based in Canada. He is a leading practitioner of International Marketing and business representing and providing modern solutions to leading companies in the Americas and enabling exports for over 20 years. He can be e-mailed on

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