Six successful T&T exporters describe the export journey they have taken, and offer encouragement and advice for those who are starting out
WORDS BY: Natalie Dookie
Writer/Business Development Consultant
Published in CONTACT Magazine
Full Circle Animation Studio: build trust and reliability
Full Circle Animation began its export journey in 2012, supplying animation production services in the Caribbean, North America, and the Far East. Today, its annual exports account for more than 50% of sales. In 2018 it secured a contract from Big Jump Entertainment in Canada to supply animation for the HBO show Animals.
Although the digital services economy is borderless, exporting from Trinidad and Tobago has been tough, says Jason Lindsay, Full Circle’s managing director. “Most local business infrastructure facilitates product export,” he warns, “and is geared to medium and large companies.”
Full Circle is an SME, operating in an industry (animation) which does not have enough local demand to make the business viable. “Many local agencies that support, promote and finance exporters still have not caught up with the services sector,” Lindsay says, “and do not fully understanding how the digital economy operates. We were born locally but are sustained globally.”
So Full Circle is pushing ahead with its export drive, and plans to add intellectual property development to its portfolio. Investing in digital properties, such as TV shows, will allow the company to benefit from ownership value on the same product.
Lindsay encourages other digital services exporters to emphasise trust, effective communication, and reliability as core values, in order to build confidence with clients in the world of borderless animation.
Tobago Cocoa Estate: product quality is key
Duane Dove, founder/owner of Tobago Cocoa Estate, is often credited with putting Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa back on the world map.
He began trading with Scandinavia in 2010, and currently produces a range of different chocolate products. Tobago Estate exports almost 95% of its production, using a combined model of direct trade along with local distributors and representatives.
As a chocolate maker working in the European Union for more than 20 years, Dove felt that exporting to Europe would be made easier by his experience there. He stresses that product quality is a critical factor when exporting to developed markets. Tobago Estate regularly enters international competitions to sanction its brand – in 2018 its Laura 45% chocolate bar secured silver in the plain/milk chocolate category at the 2018 European Bean-to-Bar competition.
Dove’s advice to local firms: “Invest in market research when exploring new markets, and undertake feasibility studies. You need to plan your export journey carefully and thoroughly.”
Sacha Cosmetics: take advantage of T&T’s trade agreements
Sacha Cosmetics first exported 15 years ago, to Caricom. It has also exported to Cuba for over ten years now, and has made inroads online, selling on Amazon in Canada, the European Union, the UK and the USA.
In 2015 Sacha entered the Latin American market, operating first in Panama where it now owns five stores. Recently it signed an agreement to position its makeup products in 115 retail outlets of the Colombian-based La Riviera Group, and it plans to further increase its outlets worldwide using a franchising model.
Kama Maharaj, Sacha’s founder, says: “The major challenge of exporting to Latin America is the time and costs required for completing regulatory and product registrations. However, we persisted because Trinidad and Tobago has duty-free or partial scope agreements with several of these markets.” In Colombia, import duties on American and European brands are 15-20%, while Sacha can enter the market duty-free.
Maharaj encourages exporters to identify their competitors, and to differentiate their products and services. Sacha is positioned as a high-end brand in its export markets, and as the only makeup line made specifically for multi-cultural women with light, medium and dark complexions.
As Sacha looks to new markets in Africa, Maharaj recommends that local firms should not restrict themselves to Caricom, as it’s a small market with limited growth potential, and nearby Latin America provides additional scope.
Trinidad Tissues: use the trade support agencies
Trinidad Tissues Limited (TTL) first exported paper products to Cuba in 2014, using a local broker. In preparation for their first visit in 2015, they met with the Cuban Ambassador, which was crucial to gaining approvals and market entry.
TTL’s CEO, Kevin Marcilliat, also credits exporTT’s Trade Facilitation Office in Cuba for helping the company to gain direct entry by arranging documents and registrations.
TTL offers bilingual customer service, which has been a tremendous asset in trading with Cuba. Eventually it formed a partnership with a small paper manufacturing plant, and started shipping semi-finished products in 2016.
Sallyann Rampat, Director of Sales & Marketing, says: “Since then we have doubled sales to Cuba year over year. We have also exhibited annually at FIHAV (the Havana international trade fair) since 2015, in order to maintain market visibility, and we have built excellent relationships with the main agencies in Havana.”
TTL now exports to over 25 countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Export sales have tripled in the past five years, and now account for 50% of revenue. Rampat urges exporters to Cuba: “Invest in bilingual ‘hunters’ and have patience. While payments may be challenging, you will get paid.”
Ramps Logistics: invest in a local presence
Ramps Logistics began their export journey with Haiti, Guyana and Suriname in 2013.
Ramps exports integrated oil and gas logistics services, including freight forwarding, customs brokerage, shore base, and visas and work permits. Preferring to establish local offices, it now has a presence in Guyana, Suriname, Miami and Houston.
Shaun Rampersad, Chief Operating Officer, says: “Every country has a different model of operating and culture, and you need to fully understand this. Guyana is culturally similar to Trinidad, which made it easier for us.”
Ramps is proud that its Guyana office is fully staffed by Guyanese, and that it is now the largest employer of Guyanese in the oil and gas sector there.
Rampersad advises: “Just do it! Go, open an office, develop relationships, tell people what you are doing and ask for help. Speak to others who have done it already, and ensure you are well enough capitalised to be able to make it through the tough times. Once you start exporting you can standardise your format and develop a model which can be replicated in other markets.”
Rampersad says his leadership team would be happy to share their exporting lessons with any exporter. For the future, Ramps is targeting the Latin American and West African markets, and will be further exploring Mexico and Colombia in the next few months.
Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago: do your market research, find partners
Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT) has been exporting Trinidad Lake Asphalt (TLA) since the early 1900s. It also exports refinery bitumen, bitumen emulsions, and the LASCO range of sealants/coatings to the Caribbean.
TLA is exported through a network of international distributors. In 1996 LATT began exporting TLA to China, and because TLA is a specialised asphalt modifier, the company needed to partner with a local distributor to develop national standards, connect with paving contractors, and obtain country approvals.
China has since become LATT’s largest international customer, using TLA on high profile projects, including the world’s longest bridge.
CEO Roger Wiggins points out that China is a huge market with tremendous potential, but business, cultural and political differences make entry challenging. He encourages exporters to engage with T&T’s Embassy in China, as they can assist with due diligence on business partners.
“Research your market, your competing products, and be aware of all barriers to trade and how to overcome them. Determine the best choice of market entry and consider a distributor, agent, or licensing arrangement if a partner is needed,” Wiggins advises.
He strongly recommends using the export support services of exporTT, the Ministry of Trade & Industry, the Ministry of Foreign & Caricom Affairs, and lending agencies such as the Eximbank.
In the long term, LATT wants to strengthen its presence in China and Brazil, while pursuing market development in India and Africa.