How Saskatchewan is Dealing with an Uncertain Export Environment
A move into international exports is fraught with challenges. A lone entrepreneur faces an almost impossible task of identifying potential buyers, navigating complex regulatory environments, or differentiating from local competition. In partnership with Global Affairs Canada, Saskatchewan’s trade offices help businesses new to exporting or moving into new markets navigate these challenges and provide networks that otherwise wouldn’t be there. They also attract foreign investment.
With the logistics and supply chain disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, shoring up existing relationships and seizing new opportunities requires a team effort. In response, more trade offices are part of the Saskatchewan government’s strategy.
And the strategy appears to be working. According to Trade and Export Development Minister Jeremy Harrison, Saskatchewan was the only province in Canada to increase exports in 2020. In the first half of 2021, exports have “increased further by 20 per cent.”
A recent success story is Saskatoon’s Rivercity Innovations, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware manufacturer for business telemetry. Rivercity president and CEO, Jeff Shirley, defines business telemetry as “the business of collecting data and using that data.” While much of the company’s solutions are industry-level, they also have consumer applications to monitor things like the temperature in appliances and track pets or bikes.
A few years ago, Shirley won a rural crime competition by sharing a technology solution he had used for his family’s bee farm. The IoT company he started three and a half years ago developed out of that initial innovation.
Fast-forward to late September of this year, and Shirley is in the south of France. Behind him is a bustling city centre with an impressive range of Roman to modern architecture and the region’s typically mild weather. But Shirley isn’t in France as a tourist.
In meetings for three days straight and with very little sleep, Shirley is in the country to close two significant deals for his young tech company. But the pace hasn’t slowed him down. If anything, he seems energized.
France is of interest to Shirley because of the widespread use of LoRa (short for Long Range networks) and the widely available infrastructure for this “emerging network technology.” Plus, some of the solutions his company provides operate on LoRa, making Europe a significant opportunity.
“In Europe, you find LoRa coverage all over the place, including indoors in all their cities,” says Shirley. “[So], instead of selling to an audience of 300,000 people in Saskatchewan, I’m selling to 60 million people in France. And instead of needing to put a LoRa network all over Canada, [in France] the network’s already there.”
Shirley credits a wide swath of tech innovation supports in Saskatchewan, from Conexus Venture Capital to Co.Labs, Innovation Saskatchewan, Tribune Capital and Golden Opportunities Fund, for his recent success.
But, when it comes to exporting, a whole other team has come together to provide advice, networks, and pathways. Shirley attests to their value.
“[The trade offices] introduced us to key contacts,” he says. “In fact, they were one of the catalysts behind the virtual trade mission to France.”
Thanks to long hours and relentless optimism, Shirley is starting to see his efforts and theirs pay off.
“It’s taken me a year to put [the deals] together, and it’s come together through efforts from the Trade Commissioner Service of Canada, a virtual trade mission to France I did in March, connections directly from
our Industry Technology Advisor, and other advisors and mentors here in Canada from the Government of Canada [and] the Government of Saskatchewan,” says Shirley. “Today [we] met our first two major partners and put pen to paper, and we officially are now operating in Europe.”
Although it took place sixty years earlier, Degelman Industries‘ start was much like Rivercity Innovations in that a farmer found a unique solution to a general problem and thought others might be able to benefit from it.
“[Degelman] started out in Raymore, Saskatchewan on a farm,” says Blair Flavel, president at Degelman. “Wilf Degelman started building rock pickers in his barn six days a week and selling them through the Western Producer on Sundays and then moved into Regina into the location we have today, built a small facility. We’ve had five expansions since then.”
Today, the business employs over 370 people, has around 240,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and has “sold in just about every country.” Their primary export customer base is in the United States, says Flavel, but they have seen significant sales in various parts of eastern Europe, Russia, and Australia over the years. Flavel says the trade offices have been especially beneficial during the pandemic, with restrictions
changing almost daily.
“Right now, [trade offices] are critical with restrictions changing every day,” says Flavel. “You don’t know what you can do and what you can ship and what the new bylaws and protocols are—[the trade offices] stay updated on that stuff.”
Doing the Work
Trade offices deliver on-the-ground support and provide insights on the emerging issues that might impact an export business or the ability to trade with a specific country. They also identify emerging risks and potential opportunities, offer insight into trade agreements, provide analysis of an evolving political landscape, currency valuations, or changing regulatory environments. Information and networks that a small to medium company would struggle to build on their own.
With the pandemic exposing “risk to the export ecosystem—particularly in management of essential logistics or supply chains,” Harrison suggests Saskatchewan exporters need every advantage in both reassuring existing customers and seizing new opportunities unearthed by the disruptions in trade and supply chains. And, with all the changes going on in the export world, Saskatchewan’s decision to “double down” on international
engagement is essential.
“That is why it is so important we mobilize the Saskatchewan international office network and coordinate our services to exporters across government and in partnership with Global Affairs Canada,” says Harrison. He points to Saskatchewan exporters’ ability to capitalize on pandemic-driven demand for agri-food exports as an example.
The foreign trade office strategy has also led to significant foreign investment in the province. Harrison points to recent announcements from Cargill, BHP, Viterra, and Paper Excellence as “the greatest amount of foreign investment into this province we’ve seen with over $10 billion of investment coming from large, global companies.”
“We are an outward-looking province, prepared to work on both growing our exports as well as investment attraction,” says Harrison. “The international offices will help us continue this economic growth.”