Even amid slowdown, India presents huge growth: CEO, Global Victoria

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on March 10, 2020

The Australian state of Victoria aims to increase goods exports to India from an annual average of A$500 million over the past five years to A$959 million by 2027, said Gönül Serbest, CEO of Global Victoria, the state’s trade facilitation agency with more than 20 offices round the world. In an interview with BusinessLine, Serbest spoke about the ties between India and Victoria, the potential to increase trade between the two regions, and how India is a priority market for the state. Excerpts:

Tell us about your trip to India, and your agenda...

This trip was around supporting Victorian businesses that are participating in the federal government’s trade mission here — it’s called Australia India Business Exchange. There are over 100 Australian businesses participating in that, but Victoria has the largest group…I guess reflecting on Victoria’s relationship with India. It’s dominated by services, but what is beautiful is that it’s dominated by the people. So, it’s a relationship built on education, like the flow of ideas, knowledge, capital, art and culture. We are fortunate that it has those deep links, and I think a lot of that is supported by the strong international students (from India) that we get to Melbourne every year as well.

How would you describe the current ties between Victoria and India?

We have been lucky — we have had successive governments that value the relationship. In 2018, our (Victoria’s) Premier launched an India strategy and education was at the forefront of that. The activities (were) around liveability, and sharing expertise on how we build sustainable cities for the future — it’s a bit of a focus on med-tech as well, and also arts and culture. For us, there’s also a connection to tourism. We are starting to see a lot more tourism from India coming to Melbourne. We have over 50,000 international students from India every year study in Melbourne. I think those two areas are probably where we are seeing huge opportunities as well.

Education has so many facets to it — it’s an enabler for many industries. So, we have been bringing a lot of trade missions also here, around sports technology, or ed-technology. Education will continue to play an important role. Melbourne is now the number three city in the world for student experience. Melbourne has over 200,000 people of Indian heritage as well. So it’s a very multicultural city.

How do Victoria’s ties with India fit in within the larger Australia-India ties?

I think in other parts of Australia, the relationship in some parts is dominated by goods. For Victoria, it’s been quite unique in that we don’t sell resources to India. We have always been focussed on services. So, while other states probably are exporting a lot more, for us, it’s all about the know-how and skills and sharing experiences.

Where does trade between India and Victoria stand?

In terms of two-way goods trade, it’s about A$1.7 billion (the goods, not including the services). A lot of the products that we do sell is more around food and fibre products — more wool than anything else. For us (Victoria), the relationship is (centred around) education and tourism. Those numbers are a little bit harder to quantify.

Is there potential to increase this? How?

Absolutely. Victoria aims to increase goods exports to India from an annual average of A$500 million over the past five years to A$959 million in 2027.

The A$1.7 billion is the two-way trade. Victoria’s exports are just a bit over A$500 million. So, the trade is in India’s favour at the moment. Services, which is what dominates our trade...(like) relationship, education, tourism...we see them as still very strong. And we think that’s where most of our trade will come from. But we anticipate that within 10 years, we will have a free trade agreement as well. And that should open up new opportunities in terms of goods trade — so that figure (A$500 million) is just for goods. We would like food, nutraceuticals and beverages as well to be part of that mix.

If we could see some opening up in terms of food and agriculture, that would be great. We are trying to do more around showcasing some of Victoria’s wine products…around nutritional food, health and snacks — I think they are the kind of new areas that we want to explore. We are seeing huge opportunities now in terms of wellness products, be nutraceuticals (or) skincare. I think Australia and India share that passion for clean, green non-tested on animals products. A lot of companies are coming through. And we are seeing that these companies are coming in through e-commerce. I think that’s a new channel for us to explore and do more.

Are there plans for investments in India? Will the Covid-19 outbreak lead to a greater reliance on India, as Australia has traditionally leaned more towards trade with China?

China is our (Victoria’s) largest trading partner. But we have been recognising that India is a very important market; we have two offices here. We have 13 staff members across our two offices, which is big for a sub-national government. So, absolutely, we are seeing more companies looking to India. Being here is an education piece to Australian businesses, to think about India for new opportunities as well. (The Victoria government leads trade missions to India. The Australian government has also delivered a trade mission to India through its Australian India Business Exchange programme.) So we definitely think that there will be more interest. We have a 10-year strategy, where we are constantly encouraging more companies to come in and will continue to lead more trade missions.

India has seen a lot of political instability in recent times, with riots and protests erupting across the country. Do you see this dampening investor sentiment?

At this stage, I don’t see it…I think there’s a lot of global unrest. Australia just suffered a huge devastating period with the brush fires — so there’s a lot happening just to recover. In Victoria, we lost a lot of homes, a lot of businesses. So there’s a big push now around economic recovery there. I think we live in uncertain times. Now we have had the coronavirus (too). So, we have been responding to that. I guess we just live in a very global world now, and markets like China and India are very integrated.

It’s just understanding that there are risks with every market. I think it’s (about) taking a long-term view and being able to see beyond the hiccups along the way. We think China will recover, and India presents a huge opportunity.

From a people to people, cultural business perspective, India sits firmly as a part of Victoria’s global engagement strategy. There are only two countries’ strategies that the government has delivered — one is on China and one is on India. So it (India) sits very firmly up there in our top priority markets. And one in which we see huge potential for growth.

India is going through an economic slowdown, and the growth indicators are grim. What makes you confident about India as a trading partner?

India is now a top-five economy in the world. So even with a slowdown, it presents huge growth. I think the fact that there are so many young people here also presents a huge opportunity.

For Victoria in particular, the Indian population in Melbourne is very strong, it is a very big diaspora back home. And it’s the fastest growing community…Big markets always present challenges, which is why we have our two offices here to help companies navigate the complexities of finding the right partners — where to start, which market to land in, because it can be quite daunting for small businesses that are landing here for the first time.

At Global Victoria, our role is very clear: we try to identify companies that have something to sell, we try and build their confidence, build their capabilities, and (help) make those right connections and introductions. We see ourselves as kind of business matchmakers or facilitators. We want to showcase the best of Victorian products and services. I think there is probably more that can be done to let people in India know that Australia is also a good trading partner, and has some really great capabilities as well.

What message would you like to convey to Indian businesses?

Victoria is open for business. We value our relationship with India. Victoria has Australia’s most multicultural cities and one of the world’s most multicultural cities. We would love to see more Indian investment in Victoria, and we would love to support more Victorian investment coming the other way round. We have been investing in this relationship for a number of years, starting from our office being here, and we just want to make sure that the flow of people, ideas, capital talent is able to flourish. And we really want to encourage students to come out as well because we think that they make such an important part of our community and add so much to our city as well. So, yeah, it’s very much a relationship based on trust and friendship, and from my perspective, a lot of love. I love this place.

Published on March 10, 2020

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