Article appeared in issue 2, 2020

Laser focus

A focused strategy of market prioritisation and diversification is sending Irish food exports soaring, according to global business development director at Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), Ailish Forde
Ailish Forde Dublin Portrait.png

Irish food and drink exports begin the new decade on a firm foundation, says Ailish Forde, global business development director, Bord Bia. “2019 brought to a close a decade of consistent and absolutely extraordinary growth, it was a record-breaking year: our exports reached €13 billion, the highest level of exports in Bord Bia’s 25-year history. That was a really positive development. Our food, drink and horticulture exports grew by 67 per cent since 2010.”

Ailish, who is in the role since November 2018, explains why these numbers are so outstanding. “Ireland is a small country: we really punch above our weight. We have a population of five million and we produce enough food to feed 25 million, and for that reason we export to 180 countries.” She tells  how insights and understanding are driving a strategy that identifies key markets and positions Irish exports as premium products, and how it’s paying dividends. 


Market prioritisation 

In 2017, Bord Bia commissioned a study of 180 markets to gain a better understanding of where it could make most impact. “We used macroeconomic and sector-specific criteria, factors like the size of middle-class, urbanisation, the rate of growth in the food market, imports, prices and demographics.” This body of research revealed the 15 top priority markets per sector, that was then whittled down to five.  

“Taking dairy as an example, when you look at our export performance, it’s very clear that it has been the star performer. In 2019 alone, the dairy sector grew by 11 per cent, it’s now worth €4.4 billion, and that was the third consecutive year that the value of exports had exceeded €4 billion. When prioritising unexplored markets for dairy, we looked at new markets with high growth potential where we could really see a difference. The priority markets for dairy are all in Asia – Japan, South Korea, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – and so we looked at how we can grow business there.”

A 2018 trade mission to Indonesia and Malaysia trialled a new approach to lead generation for Irish dairy companies. “We held a number of ‘speed dating’ type meetings, gathering in one room all of the relevant customers for our dairy companies who wanted to export to Indonesia. That worked really well, and we’ve continued to do it since, most recently on trade missions to Algeria and Egypt in February 2020, and to Japan and Korea in 2019. The Indonesian model was simple – in one morning, in one room, Bord Bia arranged a series of business conversion meetings between Irish companies and key buyers in each market.We had two sustainable dairy seminars, in Jakarta, Indonesia and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At each of those seminars we had about 60 attendees from our leading dairy buyers in that market. The outcomes of that are that Irish exports to Indonesia have risen from just under €15 million in 2018 to €27 million in 2019, up 60 per cent. In Malaysia, exports have risen from €54 million to €60 million in 2019, up 11 per cent.”

It’s not just about the physical meetings of buyers and the follow-up of the business, she continues; it’s also about raising awareness of the reputation of Irish food and drink exports and building upon it in those markets. “We have key opinion leaders and journalists visit Ireland. For Indonesia for example, three reporters from Indonesian newspapers came to Ireland last year and their news outlets have a combined reach of 17 million readers. This year, we have three Malaysian journalists coming in May to report on dairy farming systems, and we have a business networking breakfast for Irish company representatives and Indonesian customers planned for March for Indonesia, working with the Irish embassy there, to see what more we can do to continue to build that business.” 

So far this year, Bord Bia has already been on a government-led trade mission to North Africa, and it plans to travel later in the year to China, and the Philippines and Vietnam. Evaluating the effectiveness of the activity is equally important for Bord Bia as an organisation to understand what’s working. “When we do a trade mission, we follow up with the Irish companies and the buyers to track the business that has been built from those initiatives. Our trade missions are twofold, they are about the commercial side – building the business – and the government-to-government piece. That’s really important in terms of market access and building strong relationships in those countries.” 


Premium positioning 

Another important strand to Bord Bia’s strategy is positioning Irish food and drink as premium products. “We really want to drive value growth and we do that in every market we operate in. The premium positioning depends on the market, it will vary, and at Bord Bia, we are very much driven by insight. We make sure that we know what consumers are looking for, and will be looking for, what’s motivating them, what are the factors that determine what food in any market is going to look like this year, next year, in ten years’ time, in thirty years’ time. Bord Bia is doing an exercise on food futures, looking out at 2040 to see what will be driving the business, what are the motivations for consumers over that length of time. Everything we do is powered by insight.” 


Tackling trends 

These insights help the organisation to understand global consumer trends. “Health and wellness, and sustainability are big trends for consumers all around the world, and in the food industry we need to be very conscious of that. We know what resonates with consumers and customers around the world is that Ireland has clean air, clean soil, clean water. Consumers have an image of Ireland as a green island nation and that definitely influences purchase.” 

“Ireland is very highly recognised for our traceability and our credentials around food safety. From the time an animal is born, we can trace their movements right through their life. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine can do that in a very detailed way. Wherever we speak to customers, wherever we are in the world, they recognise us as ahead of the game in that area, and we need to be.”

Origin Green, the national sustainability programme, is a key tool spreading the sustainability message. “It is helping to drive our reputation that Origin Green involves all of the stakeholders: over 50,000 primary producers are members of Origin Green. We also have about 350 manufacturing companies signed up, and the largest Irish foodservice companies and retailers. That gives us a ‘whole-of-industry,’ and a national approach to sustainability. We have a global sustainability summit in September and the theme is around pathways to improve the sustainability of food systems for the future.”

Engaging experiences is another consumer trend that Ailish feels Irish food and drink producers can tap into. “Customers want products that can help consumers tell stories – they like the storytelling culture. People want to share things on social media, they want a product that is exciting and shareable. Consumers resonate with the local, where it starts with the farm. It’s about the traceability, that you can follow that journey, and if you can make that journey interesting, that’s what engages consumers.” 

And how are Irish producers responding to this ever-evolving marketplace? “The Irish food industry is very agile. Part of the reason for that is because we are such a small country, we have to export and if you have to export, given the complex trading environment that we have, you have to be agile. Irish food companies are also very innovative.” 


Diversified markets

Developing new markets cushions the blow of events such as Brexit. “Last year, for the first time, our exports to continental Europe exceeded exports to the UK. Our footprint has diversified. We started that work before Brexit, and we are conscious that the UK is still, and always will be, a very important market for us. In 2019, the EU market accounted for 35 per cent of exports, the UK was 34 per cent and the international markets were at 31 per cent, up two per cent. We have an almost even spread of our markets and that’s good news for the industry.” 


Plans for 2020

Identifying strategic partners in retail, foodservice and manufacturing around the world, and building on those relationships is a key focus for Bord Bia in 2020. “In each of our markets we have engagement strategies with our key customers so that we can understand their issues and motivations, what they need to deliver for their consumers. We have a laser-sharp focus on what we want to achieve.”