Despite the impact of Covid-19 on international trade, a three-year food export programme has succeeded in its goal of helping 24 Northern Ireland based food producers expand their global reach.

Running since 2017, the Atlantic Food Export programme culminated in a Virtual Food Expo event November, which brought together food producers, importers, agencies and policymakers.

Delivered through a series of presentations and interactive sessions, the online event provided a final platform to enable smaller, quality-focused Northern Ireland food and drinks producers reach international markets using collaborative export models.

Overcoming barriers

Overall, the purpose of the Atlantic Food Export programme was to help small food producers co-operate to overcome the barriers that they face in selling to other parts of Europe.

Working together, they learnt how to sell into each other’s home markets (France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and by forming co-operative export groups, jointly planned trade fairs and trade missions.

The project was co-funded by the EU under the Atlantic Area Interreg Programme and partner organisations from seven European regions, including the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA).

Whilst Irish food producers have a strong tradition of exporting, the focus has always been on the UK. In the context of Brexit, the Atlantic Food Export programme presented an opportunity to explore other European markets.

The 24 Northern Ireland producers which participated included Otzibrew, Cloughbane Farm Foods and Harnett’s Oils.

Tricia McNeilly of Otzibrew said she benefited greatly from her experience – particularly the marketing advice from trade professionals in the drinks industry.

“A highlight of the project was our involvement in the drinks subgroup. Alongside producers from Wales, France, Spain and Portugal, we participated in the Boifach Trade Show in Germany just before lockdown in February.

This started our European export journey as we met retail and on-trade businesses and distributors.

“I would advise anyone entering a new market to look for a distributor with a select list of premium products that will partner you in marketing because you can’t do everything remotely yourself. Also, understand your costs.”

Covid-19 impacted dramatically on the project’s delivery, due to the cancellation of trade fairs and with overseas travel curtailed online alternatives developed by the Atlantic Food Export project team included training in e-commerce, Zoom sales pitching and choosing the right web platform.

The export groups also participated in online campaigns and meetings in London, Denmark and Sweden.

“As a support agency, the Atlantic Food Export project has taught us a great deal about helping companies in the new normal and beyond,” added Michael Bell from NIFDA.

Collaborative initiatives such as this have proved their worth, and while this project has ended, we will continue to look for ways to support group approaches.

“We can also help exporters at an individual level, so, whether exporting is part of a long-term growth strategy or a response to Brexit, I would encourage producers to get in contact and explore options alongside their sector representative association.”