Trade/economic representatives

It is common for governments in countries around the world to make the effort to promote their country’s exports. This ‘effort’ may take various forms, but one of the most common ways of promoting exports, is to transfer individuals from South Africa within the country’s diplomatic missions – such as embassies and consulates – throughout the world. These individuals – known as trade or economic representatives (or sometimes, commercial representatives) – are then responsible for helping to promote the nation’s exports to the host country.

What is a trade representative?

In South Africa, they are referred to as economic representatives as their work includes economic reporting in addition to trade promotion (although in ExportHelp we generally refer to them as trade representatives as this is more descriptive of their role). Generally, they are individuals with some form of business background (such as a degree in economics or business and/or business experience). They are stationed in the host country for a period of three to four years and are usually supported by a range of local staff appointed from within the host country, such as marketing officers (tasked with helping to market the country), secretaries and administrative staff.

Trade representatives are valuable resources for exporters

Your trade representative is an invaluable asset to your export endeavours. The trade representative is your ‘eye’ in the foreign marketplace. The trade representative can help you in many different ways, by, for example, helping to gather crucial information, introducing you to prospective buyers, and generally helping you market your product in the foreign marketplace. Bear in mind that they live in the foreign country in question and they often speak the language or at the very least have an understanding of the cultural and other barriers that you are likely to face in this marketplace. At the same time, they understand the South African business environment, business culture and potential for doing business. They are therefore in an excellent position to act as mediator or facilitator for your company.

Don’t abuse the services of the trade representatives

It is essential, however, to understand that the trade representative – albeit a government employee and paid for by tax-payer’s money – is not there to do your biding. The trade representative, like any other employee, has a full day’s worth of work to do and many companies to assist. They cannot, therefore, allocate all of their time to helping your company. The best that you can expect is to ask for the occasional ‘sliver’ of their time to help gather a specific piece of information that you really need or perhaps to arrange an appointment with a buyer at a large potential customer that you are find it difficult to get to (their position as a country’s diplomat often opens up doors that you would not be able to open yourself. Under no circumstances should this help be abused!

Unfortunately, there are companies that view the trade representative as their foreign sales representative that they can ‘push around’, expect to do all of their research and marketing for them, and generally do their bidding for them! For example, they may ask them to get information that they could just as easily have looked up on the Internet or they supply only the briefest of background information and expect the trade representative to know the product and to understand the industry and/or firm based on this scant information. They are thankless and demanding (sometimes even rude) and may even speak down to the trade representative (the individual is only a government official, after all). If you are this type of person, then don’t be surprised if you find the trade representative to be cool and generally unhelpful (e.g. “…sorry we tried, but we couldn’t get that appointment for you”) – and rightly so.

On the other hand, if you are professional in your interactions with the trade representative; that is, polite, friendly and thankful, and if you provide them with all the information they need and only ask for critical and hard to get information and the occasional introduction to potential importers, you will find the trade representative most accommodating. If you let the trade representative know how valuable his/her assistance was and what success you have had or progress you have made, you will find ultimately develop a relationship with the individual and you may surprised that he/she does some marketing for your company without any request from your side. A thank-you never goes amiss!

Marketing officers and other diplomatic staff

Because of the cost of locating trade representatives in foreign countries, the South African government (in this case the DTI) is increasingly making use of foreign officials – referred to as marketing officers – to do the work of the trade representative. It is, understandably, a much cheaper option. These marketing officers essentially fulfill the same task as the trade representative. In some ways they are even better. They speak the language and have grown up in the culture. The down side is that they are not South Africans and therefore lack the understanding of the South African culture and business environment. On the other hand, the generally work in a South African mission and because of this, are immersed in typical South African way of thinking and this gives them some insight into the South African mindset. Thus, you should view the marketing officer in the same light that you do the trade representative and treat them with the same respect!

Some of the smaller missions may not have either a trade representative or marketing officer. This does not mean that the diplomatic staff will not respond to a friendly request for specific information or the request for help to arrange an appointment.

In every instance, you need to be very specific about what you want. Make absolutely sure that you cannot get this information through other means such as the Internet or trade magazines/directories, etc. Provide the official with all the information he/she needs to know about your firm and your product(s) in order to obtain the information or arrange the appointment that you are requesting – remember, they know nothing about your firm and are not product specialists. Explain what effort you have already taken to get the information and let the individual know that you have not bee successful getting the information or securing the appointment and that you hope that he/she can assist. Be courteous and polite.

What can expect to ask of your trade representative?

There are many services that you can ask of your trade representative (but not all at the same time). You can ask them to obtain certain market(ing) information, contact names and/or to arrange appointments. You might ask them advice about which trade fair to participate in or what the standing of a particular company is. Another common question might be what the import duty is on a particular product.

Bear in mind that you cannot expect your foreign trade representative to undergo any expenses on your behalf or to verify your firm’s standing. They will also not enter into any legal contracts or any negotiations for your firm!

What is the cost?

While some countries charge for the services of their trade representatives, the South African Government (DTI) does not. The services of our trade (or economic) representatives are generally free!

Click here to access the DTI’s list of their economic representatives.
Click here to access a list of South Africa’s foreign missions

Foreign trade representatives stationed in South Africa

While we strongly recommend that you make use of our country’s trade representatives, you should not ignore the trade representatives of other countries located in South Africa. These individuals know their respective countries intimately and now that they are living in South Africa, they also understand the South Africa way of life and way of doing business. They are in an excellent position to help you do business in their country – the only problem is that they are in South Africa to promote exports from their country to here and not from here to there. This makes them generally unwilling to assist South African exporters!

So what should you do? Well, we suggest that you approach them and explain to them that you want to explore the possibility of doing business with their country (yes, exports, but also possibly imports). Ask them if you can have access to their trade information, newsletter and trade library. The best is to ask for specific information such as the address of the trade association in their country for the industry you are active in. As always be polite and friendly. Some foreign trade offices may be willing to help you. Be careful about misleading the trade representative, however. If they believe that you are lying, they may quickly become unhelpful and even hostile. Lying may even result in a visa being denied to you for travel!  At the very least, you should begin by seeing whether they a website to learn more about what services they offer (or even if they have a trade representative at all).