Interview with Joanna Crellin, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner to Latin America & the Caribbean

September 11, 2018

You’ve just been appointed Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for Latin America; how will you grow British business with the region?

Joanna Crellin: I am delighted to be in this new role as I’m an absolute Latin America nut. I spent a year in Mexico when I was 18, then I did a Master’s in Latin American politics. I’m a Spanish speaker with a longstanding interest in the region so, for me, this is absolutely fantastic opportunity.

The Commissioners have been created to complement the work of the DIT, which itself is just two years old. Nine commissioners have been appointed across the globe and the idea is that we each look after an entire region, with quite a lot of autonomy to make the decisions needed to boost trade in our region. And that will differ depending on the region you’re in.

I’m a Spanish speaker with a longstanding interest in the region…

The idea is that we’re trying to raise the profile of trade in general. Make sure that we are being quite tenacious in our approach, depending on the region that we’re in. For example, one thing that I’m focusing on with Latin America is actually promoting the region to British companies. So, we will try build up a pipeline of UK firms interested in doing business in the region. That’s probably not necessary for other Trade Commissioners in places like the USA, but it will help a lot for Latin America.

Also, I am keen to use the existing infrastructure. For example, the UK has a great network of embassies and diplomatic teams, so we will be working closely with them and the foundations they have built in each country. We’re not trying to step on anyone’s toes or replicate the good work already being done, rather we want to use every resource possible to boost trade with Latin America. We will harness the excellent contacts and local knowledge that each embassy has and use it to create a regional perspective for firms that want to be present in more than just one country.

Clearly there are a lot of regional investment trends and opportunities. Mining is one, while oil and gas is another. These are areas where UK firms are already very active across Latin America. Another regional investment theme is infrastructure, yet British companies are not very well represented in that sector in the region. We have people now in 17 markets across Latin America and the Caribbean so we can link some of these opportunities, whether it’s airports in Argentina or power plants in Peru into sector specific themes. Once we have communicated these investment and trade opportunities to British companies we can then help them take the next step through contacts, market access or local promotion.

Many British firms seem reluctant to do business in Latin America; how will you change that?

JC: I still hear quite a lot of outdated conceptions of Latin America and what it’s like to do business there. There are some countries in particular that seem to have a very unfair stereotype. I think we’ve got quite a lot of work to do. I won’t be trying to paint a picture that isn’t true but explaining that there are ways getting business done and there are opportunities. Moreover, there is a lot of appetite for more UK participation and our team on the ground can help British firms do that.

I think in the UK many people don’t appreciate the incredible history that Britain has in Latin America, especially in the Southern Cone, and the close bond we have with these countries. There is a lot of goodwill towards Britain in these places. Of course, Latin America has got its challenges, but so do all emerging markets.

Please explain your trade plan for Latin America and the Caribbean.

JC: There are four pillars in the trade plan. The first is explicitly about doing more in the UK to educate potential our companies and business associations about the reality of trading and investing with the region.  Explain that there are complications, yes, but try to encourage firms to be realistic in assessing the risk. If you look at our international competitors you’ll see British firms are underperforming in the region.

On the positive side that means we’ve got quite a lot of space to grow and there’s a real appetite if you look at the past year or so. Since Brexit, we’ve had the creation of the DIT, which has boosted the number of trade-focused ministers and we’ve seen an increase in ministerial visits to Latin America. Those visits have helped the government remember the potential of a region that we have been forgotten for too long. They also sparked a positive reaction from Latin America, where many countries see Brexit as a fantastic opportunity to trade with Britain as it looks beyond its traditional partners.

The second pillar is all the more traditional range of support for companies once they are in the market. So, it could be events in-country that help them make useful contacts, supporting them if they have market access issues or helping them with research.  That’s probably activity that we do most of.

Many countries see Brexit as a fantastic opportunity to trade with Britain as it looks beyond its traditional partners….

The third pillar is the inward-investment agenda, where we encourage Latin American firms to invest in the UK. It’s an exciting area because there is a growing demand for that from Latin America. I was really delighted that the recent Tech Week in London saw 60 companies from the region, making it the largest delegation from around the world, with everyone from small start-ups to billion-dollar companies, looking for ways to invest in the UK.

The final pillar is based on trade policy. All of the stuff that we need to do now to make sure that the existing agreements between the EU and the region are ready for use when we depart from the EU. We’re also looking to the future, preparing for any fresh bi-lateral agreements that could happen further down the line as we create our own trade policy, independent of the EU.

So Brexit won’t cause any problems for existing UK trade with Latin America?

JC: Progress is good so far but obviously there’s still work to do. We’re having positive conversations now with all the many different countries in the region who are part of existing EU agreements. There’s a huge amount of will to get this done but obviously countries each have their own processes for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals. But there is a lot of momentum on both sides and a real desire make sure that there are no issues that any company who are currently trading on the basis of those arrangements. At the moment we’re confident that we’ll get there.

Can the UK and Peru government-to-government agreement be replicated elsewhere in the region?

JC: I am really encouraged by what we’re seeing in Peru. It was a pretty new thing for us to be doing, to be honest as we don’t really do government-to-government contracts generally. At the moment the early signs are positive but we will be assessing it to see what can be learned. From what I can see so far, it’s been a really useful tool for bringing companies, that otherwise would not be in the region, to the country. Because the government involvement reduces some of the risk, it’s easier for these companies to take the decision to invest so it’s a powerful tool to showcase the region. What we’re seeing in Peru is that once they come to Latin America, the firms see for themselves the large amount of opportunities.

In terms of the window that is provided we need to really be proactive now and make sure we are doing all that we can to showcase British business talents. Of course, in the short-term that will be related specifically to the Pan American Games but it is also a platform for firms to get involved in other projects in the country. As we saw in the recent World Cup, Peruvians are very passionate about sport. This is the first Pan American Games that they are hosting so if it goes well, then UK expertise will be appreciated in the country. But there is so much more we could do in Peru and the rest of the region so hopefully it’s a springboard for more work.