Taking a diplomatic view of RSA fruits exports with Dr Mono Mashaba

The name Dr Mono Mashaba is synonymous with market access in the diplomatic corps circles. In the previous article on Citrus Growers Association (CGA) accessing the Philippines market, Mzansi Agriculture Talk spoke about the batting role Dr Mashaba played in the fruit exports market. Fluent in Mandarin, this former agricultural attaché to Beijing, provides intricate knowledge on the art of agricultural diplomacy and how he managed to interwove the fruits industry and government to work together in lobbying hard for RSA fruits to gain access to the Asian tigers. 

Tshepo Phaahla (TP): You are a difficult man to track, how are you doing my good DR? 

Dr Mono Mashaba (DMM): I am not sure whether you have my correct contact details. I am easily accessible. 

TP: Thank you for making time for us. While serving at the department of agriculture, you had a stint as an agricultural attaché in China, what was it? 

DMM: Yes, I did spend 8 years (2002-2010) based at the South African Embassy in Beijing as an Agriculture Attaché. My mandate was to establish and strengthen agriculture development and trade bilateral relations with PR China, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. I was expected to support all the South African Embassies in the above countries in the fulfilment of my mandate. My role was to identify opportunities (technologies or skills) that could assist in strengthening our government agriculture development agenda in these countries and seek the establishment of frameworks or bilateral agreements that will ensure commitments to cooperate between governments. 

TP: For agriculture, exactly what did it specifically entail? 

DMM: After the facilitation process in implementing these bilateral agreements, I was expected to look for agriculture products trade opportunities and also to facilitate negotiations to ensure market access of these products into this country in compliance with Sanitary and Phytosanitary regulations of each country. In order to achieve the above mandate, the most important job was to advise and coerce the Minister and the department to do what needs to be done diligently and timeously to achieve the objective.

TP: Interesting, what achievements in your assessment could you say brought RSA some currency during your tenure? 

DMM: During my tenure in China, market access for SA citrus, wool and skins and now that have included table grapes and apples improved. Currently, the growth of the fruit industry is premised on the benefit that will be derived now and into the future in these markets. This in essence has contributed to economic growth and created a lot of jobs. You have read in the SARB and Stats SA quarterly reports the critical role that the fruit industry is playing in the earning of foreign exchange and also mitigating against the free fall of the country’s GDP.

TP: Yes, considerably in fact. We heard on numerous accounts from diplomats that most RSA agricultural companies looking for markets in foreign lands don’t bother to look for the RSA embassy help, why do you think that is the case? 

DMM: Before I arrived in China as I diplomat, I never knew that the Embassy had a role in promotion of business interests of its companies in the host country. I always thought Embassies were doing only Consulate work (visas, passports, permits, etc.) and political relations. So many companies in SA do not know that the Embassy is better positioned and closer to the theatre to assist and support their interests. So, government has a responsibility to educate South Africans about the role that Embassies play in facilitating and coordinating of trade/business relations not only for public entities but also for every SA private entity that is interested in global trade.  

TP: In your view, what was amiable or different about the fruits industry that you could fly the RSA flag and assist them in search for markets in China? 

DMM: Fortunately, the fruit industry is an export-based industry and without having access to international markets, the industry will collapse. The Leadership of the industry understands very well the challenges that need to be overcome in order to access international markets and processes that have to be undertaken to achieve that objective. That makes my work easy because failure to appreciate this challenge, the job will be difficult to do. What makes this environment tricky is that only governments can negotiate market access for agriculture products and agree on a regulation/protocol that will be enforced to ensure compliance with the requirements. The negotiation process for one product to date, can take an average of 5 years which can be frustrating and energy supping but it must be done. Industry Leadership appreciates the role that each of us as stakeholders including government needs to execute in partnership to achieve this objective and that also makes my life easy.

TP: Do you think diplomacy plays a role in growing a market share? 

DMM: Very critical role if you look at countries that are competing with us to enter key East Asian countries market. I sometime feel that we lose opportunities or take very long to negotiate market access for fruits when diplomacy is out of play. I have always maintained that individuals tasked with diplomatic roles must poses the skills and natural character to execute their tasks. I did a full thesis on this topic to emphasise this proposition. You can read the paper on the internet. It must come naturally to them because it is all about words and actions that can make a big difference in the facilitation of bilateral trade relations. Unfortunately, without a plan to be executed, our diplomatic capacity in the priority markets is never in full play despite our attempts to raise awareness on this issue. We could do much better if all our hands including the hands of those in mission are on deck.

TP: I see, compared to where the fruits industry exports was and now, was there an upward trajectory? 

DMM: When I was posted to China, an estimated 5% of the total fruit export was entering that region. To date about 22% of the estimated 2,7 million tons of fruit exports from SA to the rest of the World is entering that region. According to the Southern Hemisphere Association of Fresh Fruit Exporters, during 2014 South Africa exported about 450 000t of fruit to this region. Today, our country exports about 700 000t of fruits to this region worth about R15 billion rand depending on the exchange rate. Of this fruit, about 46% goes to the PR China. So, you can see that there is exponential growth and we are convinced that with the current work that is being done with DALRRD to access these markets and the annual output growth envisaged by the fruit industry, SA will be exporting more than a 1m ton of fruit into this region by 2025. One cannot imagine the economic growth benefits that will be derived for the country.  

TP: Based on this achievement, how difficult is it to penetrate these Asian markets and special advice for anyone wishing to export their agricultural products? 

DMM: The culture of doing business is different from what we are used to and product quality standards are also very high depending on the country prepared to pay a premium. You will also encounter tariff and non-tariff barriers making it very expensive to enter these markets. Understanding the environment that you are entering into is very important and failure to do a proper due diligence will result in disappointments. Lots and lots of patience is also required as the process to access the market can take years to achieve. Companies that are interested may consider visiting Exhibitions in these countries that they are targeting to familiarize themselves with the demand and expectations from potential clients of quality and quantities of products they intend to export. It will also help one to understand the requirements that each importing country needs from exporting countries for such a product. The challenge with exporting agriculture produce is mainly food safety and the potential to carry unwanted pests. Once you have identified a market for your products, you will then engage the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development to establish the requirements for you to be able to export. At the same time, you must start building trustworthy relationships with potential importers that you might have met at the Exhibition or other platforms.

TP: Talking of trustworthy relationships, government and the fruits industry seemed to enjoy the relationship you so eloquently spoke off, in your view how did the two manage to work well together?

DMM:  Industry has appreciated the critical role of government in negotiating market access and in tandem government has also appreciated the support role of the industry in executing its role. The other important factor is the robust nature of the relationship through established forums in the coordination and facilitation of fruit market access. Any relationship has its ups and downs which is the same with this one but the difference is that both parties’ objectives are the same. The environment is conducive to work closely together at both technical and administrative level within the established protocols. Minister Didiza also understands the challenges the fruit industry faces in regard to market access and is leading from the front by giving clear direction on what needs to be done and also accepting inputs from the fruit industry on how market access matters could be expedited. The environment that exist is what President Ramaphosa has called for, the creation of ‘Team South Africa’ for every industry and that is the way I see it.  

TP: TRALAC once noted that RSA was losing its market share to the BRICS counterpart, what is the fruits industry strategy and were inroads already made? 

DMM: It might be in other industries/sectors but with the fruit industry, despite our access in the key BRICS member countries like China and India having a number of obstacles that are critical in enabling us to increase our fruit exports to these countries, we are doing well. We are also hoping that in the future BRICS can look more at the agriculture trade related matters especially tariffs and non-tariff barriers to level the playing field as most of our competitors in the South Hemisphere fruit exporting countries have free trade agreements with China. India also imposes very high tariffs averaging 45% for fruits imports and that is very detrimental to trade. All this issues if addressed can contribute greatly to economic growth through the creation of much needed jobs and foreign exchange.  

TP: Last but not least, any advise for the agricultural attaches representing the country in helping South African agriculture companies? 

DMM: Representing your country in this role must give one pride. I have always said that there are people that I more capable than us to execute this task successfully if they are given an opportunity. If this opportunity comes your way you must grab it with both hands. Once you are at the mission you need to have a plan and that plan must be informed by all your stakeholders including government. The mistake that I have noticed is that when officials are posted, they forget that they are the representative of the Minister on behalf of government and stakeholders in the sector in the advancement of the agriculture interests of this country. The role of the Minister in a department is to ensure that government programmes are implemented and at the same time listen to the needs of the stakeholders in their sector outside government and ensure that the department addresses these needs where possible. 

Attaches must play a similar role by representing the needs of the government and stakeholders in their sector. They must also be proactive, not be like a post office. Provide valuable and credible advice on opportunities and how obstacles could be overcome in negotiations. Analytical skills are also very critical when a diplomat is probing matters because in the diplomatic world, white might look like blue in your eyes and that might mislead you resulting in providing wrong advice.  They must have a very good cordial relationships with their counterparts, respectful of the country’s culture and trustworthy because that is the essence of diplomacy. Your counterparts will become valuable to the achievement of your mandate if they see the above characteristics in you, they will walk the talk with you on every matter.

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