British business has long been a powerhouse across the globe – in fact, the UK ranks sixth in the world for export activity. But while multinational operations from Land Rover to Burberry may dominate the headlines with their sizeable exports, British SMEs make their mark worldwide too. In fact, SMEs made up 85% of all exporting businesses in the UK in 2020, and just under one in five micro businesses exported goods or services in the year to April 2021.
“People aren’t aware of the number of SMEs that export,” says James Sibley, head of international affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). “And that’s true within the community as well – we talk to owners who are sending goods and services internationally but don’t think of themselves as exporters.”
The benefits of selling internationally can be significant. Research shows that businesses that export grow at twice the rate of those that don’t. Product and service innovation is often also quicker and more advanced, with international perspectives providing valuable insight.
“Businesses that export are often the ones that are more productive, they employ more, they have higher revenue,” Sibley says. “Domestically the UK is a very competitive market. This is a way to find new customers. We see a lot of appetite and interest in it.”
Lesley Batchelor is the former director general of the Institute of Export and International Trade, and now leads workshops and boot camps, teaching business owners how to gain traction in global markets. For entrepreneurs looking to export to new markets for the first time, she says research is hugely important.
“You need to find out what’s going on in that market, whether you’re pitching a price correctly, what the competition is doing, whether your goods can even be sold in that country and other legal implications. Think about how much it costs to get your goods there, whether you’ll use distributors or an agent, and any extra costs you’ll incur. You might need to consider packaging changes or new delivery channels. Don’t just wing it.”
Advice can be found in a variety of places, says Sibley. “One of the best things you can do is talk to your peers, those businesses that have been there and done it. Make sure you’re going into a particular market with your eyes open.” A range of resources, including government help, are also available.
Maria-Yassin Jah, co-founder and CEO of Aspuna Group, is one of the many examples of British SMEs exporting their products, be they goods or services, around the world. She founded her social-impact commodities business in 2016 with two friends she met while studying for an executive MBA at the University of Cambridge. With backgrounds in commodities, they “knew that the communities where raw materials originated were failing to benefit from the value they produced”, says Jah. This knowledge underpins their focus on creating ethical supply chains to international markets.
The London-headquartered company looks to build processing capacity within rural communities, and has factories in the Gambia, Nigeria and Tanzania that allow smallholder farmers to process crops such as cassava, potato and maize. The team now uses its expertise and technical knowledge to partner with other entrepreneurs seeking to open crop-processing factories in sub-Saharan Africa.
Aspuna leads the design, development and implementation of new factories, and provides branding, market and retail sales support for those wishing to explore the European retail sector (through its partner company The Aké Collective). The company is also working on new opportunities in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Namibia.
The benefits of exporting their project-development services have been significant, Jah says. “Partnering with local entrepreneurs allows us to be much more embedded into the communities in a way that we couldn’t if we just came in as a foreign investor. British business, I think, is certainly associated with quality and professionalism but also an element of flexibility in the way we approach business. Our cultural agility has been welcomed.”
They have built relationships partly through taking advantage of their own networks via the University of Cambridge but also through the Department for International Trade (DIT). “DIT has been really helpful to us as a trusted entity, particularly in countries where we’ve not had any dealings before, and sometimes not even travelled to previously,” says Jah. “[Africa] is full of great opportunities, but it’s important you have someone you can trust to make connections for you.”
A recent study found that 375,000 UK SMEs have exportable goods but are not currently selling internationally. The first step to exporting is to have confidence in your company’s ability to have an impact far and wide, says Sibley. “If you’ve got a viable product or service, there’s going to be a market for it somewhere around the world.”
For more information about how to start selling internationally or grow your company’s international markets, visit great.gov.uk