About eight years ago, when Stephen Benoit stepped into the role of Export Development Canada’s (EDC) chief representative for the Andean region, the organization counted about 110 clients in both Colombia and Peru. Today, EDC has more than 240 client companies in Colombia alone – an increase that’s reflected in the overall growth of Canadians doing business in Colombia. Mr. Benoit, who moved recently from EDC’s office in Lima, Peru to a new one in Bogota, Colombia, talked to Exportwise about the market and his unique perspective as its chief representative.
How long have you been stationed in this region?
I’ve been working in Latin America for over 30 years. In an EDC capacity, I took over management of the region in March of 2007.
How would you describe the experience so far?
From a professional level it’s been a wonderful experience. Colombia is coming out of years of armed conflict, and there’s enormous activity around the country.
How strong is the Canadian presence in Colombia?
Canadian businesses have a very strong presence here. Canada was the first OECD country to sign a free trade agreement with Colombia, so we were the original stamp of approval as Colombia entered with force into the global market.
Are there prime sectors that offer significant potential for Canadian businesses?
Colombia is opening up its oil and gas sector very aggressively. A lot of junior oil and gas companies are now seeing Colombia as an opportunity. The geology here is similar to that of the Alberta foothills, so it seems familiar to Canadians. There are opportunities in other sectors too: transport, resources, light manufacturing, and ICT. There’s a significant deficit of infrastructure in Colombia, which the government estimates at about $100 billion. Colombia also really wants to increase digitalization, so there are plenty of opportunities in the technology sector.
Any particular challenges or barriers for Canadian companies?
Barriers to entry in this market are relatively low. The challenges tend to be challenges all exporters face, such as how to do business in a different culture and a different language; how to think global and act local, and how to compete against local companies or international companies that are acting local.
What are your top do’s and don’ts for Canadian businesses to consider?
Talk to government agencies responsible for trade promotion because they can give you really good on-the-ground advice. And talk to Canadian companies to find out what they’re saying about the market. Don’t come with a view of making the sale, but of getting to know and understand the market. Understanding the people and local culture and building language capacity are key areas you have to focus on when looking to work in this market. Also, don’t expect homogeneity. Understand the specific area you’re going into.
Any cultural practices or sensitivities should Canadians be aware of?
Canadians tend to be very informal. We consider a nod of the head to be a polite hello. Here you always have to say hello and you always have to shake a person’s hand. Colombians start meetings talking about each other and sharing personal things. Being able to get to know people on a personal level – that’s part of how they do business here.