As local consumption is limited, the export business plays a vital role in Sri Lanka’s economic growth. However, it is high time for the country to look beyond their traditional products and markets and push industry-friendly policies, infrastructure development and attract foreign investors, and a larger stake is dependent on vision and implementations of strategic plans by Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EBD). Prabhash Subasinghe, Chairman of the Board, said EDB will focus on support existing exporters to bolster their exports, bring new products in the export baskets, look into new export markets, increase capacity building and attracts foreign investment through industry-friendly policies and incentives. Excerpts from an interview
How important is export business for Sri Lanka's overall economy?
The Export business is an important segment for the sustainable growth of the economy of Sri Lanka and creates many employment opportunities. The export market of Sri Lanka is vast where the traditional exports of tea, rubber and coconut still play a significant role in bringing in export revenue to the country not forgetting the other major exports- apparel, spices and gemstones. Even though Sri Lanka does not produce in abundance the essential items, the country needs but does it in a smaller scale yet going towards few quantities of imports too, which involves outward remittance in foreign currency. Also, the size of the population limits the capacity of firms to achieve economies of large-scale production by solely catering to the local market thereby, export business is very vital for Sri Lanka's overall economy.
What are the country's strengths in the export business?
‘Made in Sri Lanka’ is synonymous worldwide with the values of high quality, reliability, social and environmental accountability. Sri Lankan brands that are increasingly associated with high quality and ethical manufacturing practices have opened up new avenues in the global arena. Ethical brands Sri Lanka apparel goes hand in hand, and this focus on sustainability has proven a worthy investment in the future of the industry. Apparel is one of the world's leading proponents of 'Ethical Business and Manufacturing Practices' for the Global Fashion and Apparel Sourcing Business. It earns its distinction of being among the very few industry bodies that have brought about a transformation in the way businesses are run, with responsibility, conscience and care.
Value addition and building Sri Lankan brands in the tea industry require a high level of investment and a commitment to quality in product and process. Sri Lanka was also the first to achieve the "Ozone Friendly Tea." World-renowned Sri Lankan tea brands are intensely involved in emphasising sustainable development to become a valuable partner in developing a social, corporate and environmentally responsible product to its consumers.
Young, educated & productive, talented and highly trainable workforce in Sri Lanka proves to be one of the best in the region. Availability of human resources with proficiency in English and ICT knowledge to meet the needs of the present industry demand is a strength of the country.
Exports of services such as ICT, wellness tourism, financial services, construction & other professional services have grown significantly in the last decade. These sectors have proven their ability to diversify their export market destinations.
The availability of natural raw materials in industries such as rubber, spices, especially cinnamon and pepper, coconut, Gems etc play a vital role in the national economy with more significant value addition to the necessary products.
Why should foreign companies invest in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is situated strategically at the crossroads of major shipping routes to South Asia, the Far East and the continents of Europe and America, making the country a convenient port of call for shipping lines and airfreight services. Further, Sri Lanka's proximity to the Indian sub-continent positions the country as a gateway to a market of 1.3 billion people. These factors have combined to generate keen interest in the country's logistics sector, as well as from manufacturers looking for opportunities in the South Asian region.
Further, Sri Lanka has entered into 28 Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Treaties (BITs) so far, protecting foreign investments within the country. There is a wide range of incentives offered to attract investments which includes; enhanced capital allowances, concessionary corporate income tax across many sectors including SMEs, tax concession for R & D activities, CESS exemptions for the importation of Capital Goods, importation of raw materials & for tourism projects, VAT Exemptions/Deferments & Custom Duty Exemptions for export-related activities and exemptions also offered under Hub Regulation. Besides, as per Strategic Development Projects Act No. 14 of BOI, exemptions are granted for projects which is in the national interest and which is likely to bring economic and social benefit to the country and which is also expected to change the landscape of the country primarily.
Furthermore, the availability of quality natural raw materials, relative ease of doing business, and talented highly trainable workforce in Sri Lanka also play a vital role in attracting the interest of investors to invest in the country.
How do you evaluate the impact of Covid19 on the country's economy, and especially on exports? How are you coping with it?
Global economy is forecasted to contract by 3 % in 2020 sharply, and there is no accurate prediction as to when the effects will reduce. Sri Lanka is no exception to the impact of the pandemic and exports both merchandise and services which stood at US$ 16.14 billion in 2019. In May, Sri Lanka's merchandise exports decreased by 37% to USD 602.4 Mn. In the first 5 months, exports earnings fell by 28.7 % to USD 3456 Mn from the corresponding period of last year. Considering the unprecedented disruption to the global economy and trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sri Lanka Export Development Board has reduced its 2020 exports forecast from US $ 18.5 billion to US$10.75 billion by about 42%. As per the revised target, EDB forecasts $ 7.53 billion in merchandise exports and $ 3.21 billion from service exports in 2020.
Despite the gloomy global situation, we are confident that the export sector will be the first to recover, whilst other foreign exchange inflows such as tourism and worker remittances will take time to bounce back in the economic revival post COVID -19.
The EDB officers have been working tirelessly to help the exporters by setting up a helpline to facilitate to assist in the present situation, publishing updates on the EDB website with the government directives through circulars/letters/guidelines etc., liaising and intervening on behalf of the exporters with all the higher authorities , connecting exporters with the foreign missions and ambassadors to find new opportunities, facilitating with curfew passes abiding with health guidelines issued and implemented by the government and communicating news to all Sri Lankans and overseas markets by taking initiatives in publishing various news articles pertaining to export-related services to continue their businesses.
During the early stages of the pandemic, our apparel sector was affected badly. However, we now experience a reasonably positive trend, especially with the manufacturing of PPE, where the sector has now attracted a considerable amount of orders. Therefore, we believe that the decline expected for apparel exports at the beginning of the year may be less than that as the sector is going to experience a strong revival with orders in hand for PPEs and EDB is constantly on the lookout for such specific opportunities that Sri Lanka could maximise on.
We firmly believe that there is a great opportunity to establish strong FTAs with China etc., to engage in new export opportunities taking the crisis situation into consideration.
Do you think now EDB needs to re-strategies its business plans to boost exports?
The National Policy Framework "Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour" underlines the key points of achieving economic growth of 6.5 percent or higher, per capita income exceeding USD 6,500 and maintaining the rate of unemployment at less than 4 percent. Exports are very important to achieve this goal.
The Export Development Board (EDB), the country's apex Trade Promotion Organization (TPO), has revised its strategic plan with a focus on addressing what the EDB should do during and the post Covid–19 period and how it should operate to fulfill its mandated role having aligned with the National Policy Framework and National Export Strategy. Accordingly, EDB will adopt and implement 5 Strategic Pillars in the immediate, medium and long term. This includes;
Support existing exporters to bolster their exports – This strategy aims to create a business enabling environment for exporters to be competitive in the international market
Promote new exports from Sri Lanka to transform the current Sri Lanka export basket - This objective focuses on diversifying current export basket by introducing value addition, innovation and invention
Diversify into new markets - This objective supports to diversify current export markets by reducing over dependency on few export markets and reduce the dependency of fewer sourcing destinations
Enhance capacity building - This aims to enhance exporter capacities in developing their industries
Generate export-led foreign investment into the country - This objective aims to attract export-led FDIs that will ultimately increase production, productivity and new technology adaptation.
For each of the five strategic pillars, immediate, medium and long-term strategies are identified. Based on that, EDB is in the process of finalising its action plan for the year 2020 and 2021. Implementation of the new actions is expected to help revitalise the export industry that's been hit by the pandemic.
Do you think there is a need to diversify export baskets and markets?
Currently Sri Lanka export engines rely on a blend of traditional industries and growing service sector. It is vital to empower the emergence of champions beyond the traditional export industries of apparel, tea, gems & jewellery and rubber.
Sri Lanka has been over depending on few markets and has been catering to these markets over the past decades. Around 60% of the Sri Lankan exports have been concentrated in the European Union and North American regions showing lower markets
Diversification over Asia, CIS, Africa, Latin America and Oceania regions. We must now pursue other markets as well.
Connecting Asia to Europe and Africa, Sri Lanka is well-positioned to participate fully in the global production networks and export to billions of consumers, both regionally and beyond.
Sri Lankan companies that are facing difficulties should be willing to diversify to new markets, and it is high time to make that change happening. Further, companies should also look for new sourcing destinations in future to continue our production lines uninterrupted.
EDB has been focusing on identifying various measures to diversify our export revenue streams. Various discussion and dialogues were conducted internally and with the multiple stakeholders, and this information are being disseminated with the relevant parties. We encourage exporters to re-visit their product portfolio and to identify new potential products in the short, medium and long term. As a developing nation, we always encourage new investments with a focus on emerging potential areas in agriculture, industrial and service segments. EDB is leading this effort along with all Sri Lankan Missions Overseas.
Further, EDB and BOI work in collaboration to attract and increase investments with a focus on emerging potential areas in agriculture, industrial and service segments targeting key products to enhance the export basket, namely; automotive parts (seals, gaskets, hoses, wiper blades, belts, Conveyor belts), apparel (technical apparel & PPEs), electrical & electronic components (semiconductors, Transformers PCB, panel boards' Insulated wires & cable, Switches, plugs & sockets etc), ICT (Software design & development), Mineral-based products (Graphene and related products) and Food Processing sectors.
To create an export hub and attract investors, a country needs good infrastructure, skilled workers, smooth supply chain and industry-friendly policies. How do you see these factors, and what are your efforts to improve them?
Good infrastructure, trainable workforce and business-friendly ecosystem are very vital components in making Sri Lanka, an export hub.
Sri Lanka's geographical location, dynamic business environment, dependable logistics and resilient human resources have become invaluable assets. Realising this, our government is committed to creating an enabling environment to strengthen the competitiveness, which is a key driver to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth of Sri Lankan exports.
Further, EDB provides its fullest support to exporters to move up in the value chain. Some of them include; Review the supply chains and go for shorter regional supply chain, Establish linkages with cross-functional institutions (ICTA/SLINTEC/Universities), Trade support to assist new exporters in selling their products in the e-marketplace, Identify opportunities in major Global value chains and encourage exporters to diversify into component manufacturing, SMEs development aiming at the Export Market, Assistance for value addition, innovation and inventions and expansion of existing exporter capacity, Facilitate to upgrade the quality of exports through advanced technology (certifications/ standards) in identified new products etc.
In addition, Young, educated & productive, talented and highly trainable workforce in Sri Lanka proves to be one of the best in the region. EDB implement various capacity-building programmes to enhance the know-how of the export community.
For the long term, what is your vision?
To develop stronger Sri Lankan businesses to access global opportunities enhancing foreign exchange earnings while creating employment for our people.
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