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Four Ways to Help Partner Firms Optimize Their Trips to International Trade Shows

Developing countries depend on markets for livelihoods and growth, so strengthening markets is fundamental to international development assistance. One way to strengthen markets is to create trade by introducing supply to demand. Excellent examples are provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s East Africa Trade and Investment Hub: this program introduces buyer and sellers of grain and livestock, who then do what comes naturally, that is, buy and sell—$402 million in new grain trade contracts so far!

Bringing together buyers and sellers at tradeshows is a great way to facilitate new international trade that could strengthen markets at both ends of the transaction. However, trade consultants know that merely transporting private sector partners to tradeshows does not ensure their success. Preparing their clients and supporting them during tradeshows and all the way through the first few sales and deliveries (and payments) are critical to creating market momentum. 

Afghanistan would be high on anyone’s list of countries that could benefit from establishing new trade relations, and USAID’s efforts there are bearing fruit. Afghan companies participating at February’s Gulfood Show in Dubai signed contracts for $86 million in exports, up from $27 million in 2016 and $12 million in 2017. These companies’ participation was in part funded by USAID.

I recently met with DAI’s Juan Estrada-Valle, who leads the Afghanistan Value Chains (AVC)—High Value Crops project, and Jeanah Lacey of the aforementioned East Africa Trade and Investment Hub, who shared four helpful lessons for improving the results of tradeshow attendees:

  1. Bring the Right Businesses

At DAI, we typically attend tradeshows with private sector partners wishing to make deals. These partners should be export-ready businesses immediately able to sell large volumes of products that already meet buyers’ quality standards. If exporters need to gradually expand their capacity or upgrade their processing standards, there will be no immediate deals made as a result of participating in the tradeshow. If exporters need to invest in their businesses to prepare for expanded exports, they should do that before engaging in concrete deal-making at tradeshows, where buyers are generally ready to buy on the spot.

However, there is value in attending tradeshows for firms that are not yet export-ready, as seeing their competition firsthand can open the eyes of an aspiring exporter to requirements in product quality, packaging, marketing approaches, and finance.

  1. Proactively Target the Right Buyers

Fresh from his trip to Gulfood with Afghan partner firms, Estrada explained their strategy this way: “We sought out buyers in specific target markets—for example, United Arab Emirates and India, because Afghan products meet their quality standards and there are no trade barriers. We then worked the tradeshow floor to identify interested buyers, brought them to meet our partner firms, and helped start the conversation.” Estrada added that the AVC project did not invest in expensive booth space, but instead utilized open areas in the exhibit hall for business and overflow meetings, and adjacent hotels for early morning or after-hours meetings.

Lacey emphasized the value of participants doing homework before departing for the tradeshow by researching buyers in the tradeshow catalog. This enables aspiring exporters to hit the ground running upon arrivals and even make advance appointments.

  1. Anticipate Buyers’ Concerns and Interests

Speaking of hitting the ground running, would-be exporters should arrive at tradeshows prepared to quote delivered prices, state volumes, and show evidence of quality standards—for example, by bringing samples. When meeting a new supplier, buyers often doubt the exporter can really deliver. The AVC project anticipated this concern and helped each partner firm identify a few current customers who could serve as trade references. They called these references during the negotiation and let them speak directly to the interested buyer. The East Africa Trade and Investment Hub used a similar approach for Gulfood by helping the companies produce video of their processing facilities and showing the video to potential buyers.

  1. Finish Transactions with High Quality

Returning from a tradeshow wondering how to fill all the new orders is a great problem to have, but it is still a problem. Development assistance should intensify after the tradeshow to make sure the first deliveries by partner firms meet expected standards and timelines. Missing either of these targets can abruptly end the new relationship and discourage buyers from entering into other agreements in a particular country. Activities should extend to following up on the first deliveries to see if the buyer is satisfied or if they have suggestions for improvements.

Developing countries are, by definition, developing, and their markets, businesses, and businesspeople are evolving as well. Ingraining an outward customer orientation takes time and practice for businesses accustomed to operating in siloed, extractive markets. However, this outward customer orientation can transform one deal made at a tradeshow into a long-term business relationship. At scale, this approach to tradeshow assistance can promote stronger markets in developing countries and help markets as well as countries become more prosperous and self-reliant.