Islamabad – For Ghalib Iqbal, the Ambassador of Pakistan to France, it is a logical conclusion: more visibility of Pakistani companies in the European market will lead to more business opportunities.
“The more you are seen, the more you are bought,” Iqbal told The Express Tribune during a telephonic interview from Paris, France, where he is posted as Pakistan’s envoy since January 2013.
From fisheries to fashion and furnishing new passports, the ambassador discussed the future prospects of Pak-French bilateral relations, the needs of Pakistanis living abroad and the avenues for trade enhancement during the conversation.
Improving Pakistan’s international trade is also the first of two instructions Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued to Pakistani missions abroad after coming to power in the May 2013 elections.
The “more visibility” strategy would work because European buyers want to “put a face to the exporter,” Iqbal said.
With France, Pakistan is already in a strong bilateral trade relation: rough estimates put the 2013 trade volume at $1.352 billion, up at least 14 per cent from 2012 figures, with the trade balance in Pakistan’s favour.
This Pak-French trade volume is expected to increase in 2014, Iqbal said, with the European Union’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status, which recently allowed Pak companies duty-free access to the European market.
But in order to capitalize on this opportunity, Pakistani companies need to maintain quality control and improve their marketing techniques, according to Iqbal.
Last year, during a Pakistani mango festival in France, the Pakistani embassy went bold and sent boxes of mangoes to the top ten chefs in France. “One of the chefs ended up using the Pakistani mangoes for his recipes,” Iqbal said.
It was a modest success that has given the embassy confidence to apply the same tactic to rice export.
Pakistani rice, arguably one of the finest rice varieties in the world, was mostly bought by the ethnic, first-generation Pakistani community in France to use in their desi restaurants.
Some second-generation Pakistanis, however, have moved on to other careers, which has led to a decrease in demand of rice. So the Pakistani embassy is trying “to market (rice) differently to increase export,” Iqbal said. He said the new target audiences are “people outside the Pakistani community and high-end French restaurants.”
Then, there is untapped potential in the export of Pakistani seafood, especially shrimps. At present, only two Pakistani companies are cleared by EU to export seafood.
“The way we process seafood, there is a gap of 27 hours between catching and delivering compared to 6-9 hours gap for French fisheries,” Iqbal said, before indicating that Pakistan can use French technological help to improve its fisheries and marine farming processes.
“We need to get some training. France can provide such training,” the Pakistani envoy said. “If we can package seafood hygienically and improve processing, there is huge market potential for Pakistani seafood in Europe. We need to concentrate on this sector religiously.”
Furniture and fashion are two other neglected areas in which Pakistani companies and artists are skilled and the embassy is trying to help them achieve marketing expertise to attract French buyers, Iqbal said.
“What all we need to do is to be more adaptable to international standards,” he said.
In foreign lands, adaptability is also a social issue. The ambassador said embassy officials urge the Pakistani expat community to get involved in the French mainstream. “The community can be very valuable in building bridges between Pakistani and French cultures,” he said.
With over 100,000 Pakistanis living in France and some 1,138 Pakistani students studying there, Iqbal said welfare of overseas Pakistanis is the second instruction premier Sharif issued.
“For people who visit the embassy, the first thing we do is to show them the utmost respect and offer professional services that are at least on par with French offices,” he said.
One problem the embassy is facing in timely service delivery is due to the centralized issuance of new machine-readable passports, which are printed in Islamabad and then sent to Paris. Consequently, even people who have paid the “urgent” delivery fee have to wait longer to get their passports.
“I feel this is not fair,” Iqbal said. He suggested a mixed system where the approval is centralized but printing is decentralized so embassies can quickly print the passports and deliver them to the Pakistani nationals.
Better service delivery could perhaps make the Pakistani community more responsive to the embassy’s community engagement message, which could in turn also help improve Pakistan’s perception in France.
The country’s reputation is considerably positive among French businesses who have worked with Pakistani companies, Iqbal said, but it is still a matter of uncertainty for French companies who have not.
With a personal target of increasing bilateral trade by 35-40 per cent during his assignment tenure, Iqbal said the embassy’s commercial section is ready to put Pakistani companies in touch with French buyers.
In February, 23 local companies and seven individuals represented Pakistan at the TexWorld Paris exhibition — one of the largest textile trade fair in the world. If such participation is supported by better promotion, consistency and quality, Pakistan’s exports are bound to rise, Iqbal said.
“Pakistani exporters should get in touch with European buyers at least three to four months prior to an exhibition, so the buyers also get to know about them,” Iqbal said. “The Pakistani business community needs to come out in big numbers and be well-prepared.”