Nella Hengstler is the Commercial Counsellor, Austrian embassy’s Commercial Section in Nigeria.
In this interview with Vera Samuel Anyagafu, she gives an update on the mutually benefiting trade relations between Austria and Nigeria, the latest 2017 trade figures for the two countries, as well as exports from Nigeria to Austria and much more. Excerpts:
What is the volume of trade between Austria and Nigeria as well as the growth of Austria export to Nigeria in the last six months?
The latest trade volume for Austria and Nigeria amounts to 110 Million euros. (+9770%) – 90 percent crude oil. Exports from Austria to Nigeria hit 16 Million euros (-9.5%) – ranging from machinery, energy drinks, lace and so on.
While some machinery exports have picked up, others also saw their volumes drop, the same with the Austrian laces/textiles.
The volume of trade currently is about 70 million euros, both import and exports.
However, the trade has gone down because of the development in the foreign exchange market and so on. We use to have $200 to $300 million, just Austrian export to Nigeria and we have about N800 million exports from Nigeria in the crude oil but the last two years saw the trade volume dip due of the economic difficulties in Nigeria.
Last year was not a great year, our exports dropped by 34 per cent to 64 million Euros and Nigeria exports have basically come down because the crude oil export to Austria stopped.
But we have seen those pick up as exchange rates stabilised and Nigerian companies can open letters of credits again and you can see more demands of products from abroad. We are also optimistic that this year will be better.
Our trade relationship with Nigeria is getting stronger. When I came 2011, Nigeria was a very exotic market and now everyone knows about Nigeria. So many other markets are saturated, but Nigeria is a very attractive market and European companies have understood that if you want to be in the fore front of new market, you have to look at Nigeria and in that way our relationship has developed and we no longer feel that our countries are so far away any more.
What polices are in place to validate this trade relation?
There are certain things we are focussing on and we will always do our traditional export of Austrian companies in the machineries base, Austrian lace, the energy drinks, and the paper exports and so on.
We are also increasingly looking at innovation. We are looking at textiles apps and the incubators and all the young people who are studying the program apps in Nigeria, because we believe it is also a story that we need to tell about Nigeria.
Austrian companies will start looking at Nigeria also in another way and say it is a future market for Information Technology, for innovations. So internally we have an innovation centre for our organisation that is monitoring what new innovations are coming out of Nigeria and I find that very exciting and we are going to be reporting back to Austria about the things that are happening here.
Almost every head of the official delegation wants to see one of the incubators. We are also having a focus on the construction industries, because in-spite of the economy having its difficulties, the construction firm is still doing fairly well. So we are looking at how to connect Austrian businesses that are supplying construction equipment and construction material to that sector, which is still an on-going projects.
So these are our own policies internally. You have to know that Austria has been part of the European Union (EU) since 1995 and they are also part of Shengen, so we do not have special Austrian importation rules under the EU regulations. So any exporter from Nigeria must have to comply with EU regulations and assessment, especially agricultural products and the people in that space usually know. So, it is the same regulations for all EU countries.
How would you rate trade development in Nigeria?
Nigeria is a very important trading place not just for Austria, but for every African neighbours and obviously for us overseas, because it is the most populous country in Africa. It has the most spending power and also one of the few markets where actually things are manufactured on ground. It is the industrial hub of West Africa.
So those industries that are also consuming raw materials, they are consuming machines, they need machines for their production and all of these generate trade. So my assessment is that Nigeria will always be the most important market, at least in west Africa and certainly, I would say after South Africa which is very different on the development level, but it is still the most important market after South Africa and there is still a lot of room for improvement and every time we meet, we talk about the problem of power generation, and other challenges in terms of logistics, transportation, roads, ports, etc.
Also, there are still lots of things that need to happen for business and ease of doing business here easier. I know that the government are coming out with business policy and improvement policy, which are very much appreciated. I think they are trying and really tackling those problems. There are new initiatives at the ports which started this summer and I am looking forward to how that will develop and begin to make importing through the port to Lagos easier.
It will bring down the cost and will really make Lagos more competitive. Poor energy is killing lots of things here and makes your production cost very high when you depend on diesel to generate electricity.
Some parts of Lagos have started using gas generators, because there are lots of advantages using gas generators. They are cheaper and more durable. Austria supplies gas generators. And a lot of the big industries here use gas generators. So gas is one of the few choices for generators. There is also hydro-power plant and they are all equipped by Austrian companies back in the day. But we are now looking at more hydro-power plants sites.
How does your trade centre assist in facilitating visa for Nigerians intending doing business in Austria?
We do not have a Consulate in Lagos. The Austrian embassy which sits in Abuja has a Consular Section that is issuing various categories of visa to Austria. Officially our office here does not issue visa, but there has been a good development in the visa applications since last summer.
Our embassy is using Visa Facilitation Service (VFS) and so Nigerians who want to apply for visa will travel to Abuja, but now they can apply through VFS in Lagos. They can drop their application and do not have to ask for interview. They are open till 2pm every working day. Applicants drop the application and then, the embassy would process them and send applications back and that has made things a lot easier.
Also the embassy can call you for interview if they have doubts and sometimes, they just want to interview people, but it is not a requisite, because VFS can also take your finger prints and do the whole processes. The commercial section here may not involve in visa decision, but we can do that if we know someone personally, like their background.
Basically, if you want to travel as a business person, you will be invited usually by a partner in Austria and they need to supply the invitation letter and other papers you require. A lot of people apply for visas and have fraud papers so there is a reason why the embassies are so strict, because you are handling millions of Nigerians.
Some people just want to travel to countries and stay there, so the problem is not something that has been made up. It is an existing problem and so if you look at the refugee streams that are landing in Europe, a lot of them are more refugees from Syria.
Also, a lot of people go to look for a better future which is also understandable, and this is why there are all these issues of being strict with visa.
On one hand of course, we recommend business people that we know personally and know their background. That someone knows someone does not mean you know that person. It is very hard to put your name or the name of your company at stake.
People have to be very sure they are going for the right reasons and they are willing to return. So there are a lot of issues with that, but I agree is actually one of the issues we face and different Schengen embassies determine why people get denied visas to go to trade fairs and I do not think anybody denies a business person a visa on purpose because we are all interested in business.
It is also difficult to get visas to come to Nigeria, but in Austria, we have a very good relationship with Nigerian embassy.
Aside the trade mission you often organise for Austria and Nigeria business people, what other efforts are you making to introduce Austria to more Nigerians?
I think a big thing we have been doing in the last two years is the Austrian news, which is the news letter that we bring out quarterly.
Every Nigeria I meet gets the news letter. Although, the news letter is not an in-depth publication, but it gives you some information about Austria, some information about companies and what we do.
We have a very good response from it. Every time we send it out, Nigerians write back to us, commending and showing interest in it. And it creates new conversations about what we can supply from Austria and how we can partner each other and that has been a very successful way of making Austria popular.
Very few people know that Red-Bull and Power Horse are Austrian products. If you have a plastic factory, you will know Austrian machines, because we have a reputation. We are a very small market, so we not have as many consumer goods just like the Germans, who have like their cars and so on. Our products are really made for exporting. We are just nine million people.
Also, Austria is well known for tourism and technical things. Most times people cannot make the difference between Austria and German, because we both speak German and the difference in culture is very small.
Germany is our biggest trading partner. German companies have invested in Austria and so are Austrian companies in Germany and you cannot just pin point from which of the two countries a particular product is made from, although we have our specialty.
Is there any advice you have for the two countries?
To Austrians I use to tell them you need to come and meet business people here. Nigeria is relationship based more than Europe is. Although, the two nations do have trust issue that they met and have a cup of coffee with you does not entirely mean you will supply what you said you will.
For you to do business here you have to take the time and the money to come here more than once and if you are not willing to make that effort, that commitment then you should not try. It is not only writing emails and calling someone, because 90 per cent of the time it is not happening. You have to come to find the partners and the distributors.
Basically if you have decided that you want to do a Nigeria business, then, commit money and time into it. It is not something you do in between other things. And for Nigerians, I advice them to be more committed. I have a lot of Nigerians who come here to meet me with interesting projects, but they have not solved it through. So they come, thinking Austrian companies will bring the money.
So they need to have a business plan. They need to show commitment, by putting some of their own money down. Any investor would have to bring his own equity to show seriousness. And you have to do your ground work and come with a good proposal. I get a lot of projects that are interesting but not developed.
Nigerians are so entrepreneuring and the big economic advantage is that everyone is an entrepreneur and that generates so much economic activity, but I think people need to be helped to do it in the right way and be able to present it to a foreigner in the right way.