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Dig under the surface of Colombia's past

Colombia is misunderstood. Views of the country are dated and based on what was happening ten years ago; drug cartels and the associated violence, guerrillas and civil war. But this doesn't reflect the current reality of the country; a modern, vibrant beautiful country with billions of pounds worth of opportunities for experienced exporters looking to expand.

With a population of 46 million, higher than Argentina, and the third largest economy in Latin America after Mexico and Brazil, Colombia is a market that UK companies cannot afford to ignore. Latin America has been the forgotten continent but it's a high growth market - Colombia grew by 5.6 per cent last year alone. Yet UK exports to Colombia remain relatively low. Up by 60 per cent from 2009 to 2010 to £418 million, but still relatively low.

I've just returned from my fiftieth visit to Colombia, my fourth on behalf of UKTI, a trade mission with the British and Colombian Chamber of Commerce, and I can't tell companies enough about the extent of opportunities on offer to British firms. The desire for upmarket British brands is high and the market is right for these sorts of products now, particularly as their currency is strong, making our top quality goods more affordable.

The President, Juan Miguel Santos, is a great advocate of Britain. He studied at the London School of Economics and lived in London for 11 years. He is currently rolling out his vision of having everyone in Colombia speak English as a second language, the language of business, by having English on their national curriculum. They are currently hearing pitches from global universities including Oxford and Cambridge.

The British government's relationship with Colombia is already close and has been for many years. The President's visit to the UK in November last year to meet with David Cameron further outlined this when they discussed their determination to take our relationship to the next level.

I travelled with 11 UK companies on this most recent market visit and they received a warm reception - Colombian people are fantastic to work with and once a friendship has been established they will go out of their way to do business with you. Companies on the visit included luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, who want to add to their global network of 60 outlets, with a Colombia franchise. The visit gave them a chance to meet with potential partners to help them establish their franchise.

Tudor Export, a firm producing photographic paper and film, long established and widely used across much of Africa, the Middle-East and South East Asia, met with some of the key industry players to gain a better understanding of the market, its size and how it works. They secured interest from three distributors and now have to make their choice about who they will use. Surrey Satellite Technology, provider of operational and commercial satellite programmes, who have successfully launched 36 satellites into orbit over the last 25 years, met with the Government to discuss providing a satellite over Colombia.

Free trade agreement
So what other opportunities can Colombia offer UK firms? Infrastructure will be a key driver to take Colombia to the next level of development. The government has set out its ambition to secure £55bn in investment over the next eight years. And they plan to build one million new social houses by 2014. Colombia also has strong admiration for, and most importantly wants, UK commercial expertise in large-scale finance and project management, engineering, professional services and sustainable construction. And just recently a new free trade agreement has been signed with the EU which will be in action within the next year. This opens up more possibilities for SMEs with duty free access to the Colombian market.

During July, Colombia and UKTI launched the Infrastructure Journal's special report which identifies the key upcoming commercial opportunities in infrastructure and urban regeneration in the coming months. Colombia does still face some problems associated with drug trafficking and, particularly in remote rural areas, an ongoing struggle between armed groups and the Government, but this is a war the government are winning, both militarily and in the hearts and minds of the people. Colombia's cities are broadly similar to any large cities around the world and no more or less dangerous and the problems that visitors face are no different to those that exist in any large cities.

So here are my top ten tips for doing business in Colombia:

1. Research and plan early: Is there a market there for you? Is your competitive edge in the UK transferable to Colombia? Desk research via the internet, suppliers, customers, trade associations, trade journal editors and exhibition organisers can be free of charge.

2. Seek out sources of advice and expertise early: This should save you time and money on wasteful activity and help to mitigate risk.

3. Get in touch with a global support network through UKTI: Visit

4. Consider your pricing strategy: Pricing must be competitive. US dollar or Colombian peso pricing is the norm.

5. Think about language implications: Make the effort to produce brochures in Latin American Spanish - it makes a difference. Also think about translation of parts of your website.

6. Think about cultural implications: Make sure that your business cards are up to date and any titles are included - Colombians place a lot of importance on titles and good quality business cards. Take business suits - Colombians in the major business cities generally wear formal suits to all meetings. Try to visit Colombians at their offices, rather than invite them to your hotel.

7. Think about your strategy: It is usually best to have a local partner or local presence.

8. Arrange a programme of visits in the market: If you are new to business in Colombia, it is strongly advisable to arrange a programme of meetings through the local UKTI office prior to travel. Allow time at the end of your stay in Colombia to pay a second visit to those potential clients who have asked you to come back and see them again. Be prepared to socialise and do working lunches. Allow plenty of time between meetings, as the larger cities can get very congested with traffic.

9. Take part in a guided market visit: To take advantage of travel grants, local contacts, experienced mission leaders and business networking, consider joining a group-guided and supported market visit with UKTI.

10. Follow up: Don't forget to follow up and don't let the contacts go cold. Stay in touch with your Colombian contact/partner: don't let relationships drift, and make sure that you visit the market regularly.
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