Wales, a peninsular principality attached to the west of England, has long been in the shadow of its bigger British neighbour. But after four years as the head of the Welsh government’s food division, with a responsibility to promote the nation’s produce on an international stage, Keith Smyton believes the world now wants signature Welsh produce and goods.
There have been more trade missions to promote Brand Wales worldwide since Smyton came on board than probably at any time in the last 25 years. He says the world is starting to “find Wales again” and is asking for its food exports.
Proffering a business card adorned with the famous “y ddraig goch”—the red Welsh dragon taken from the national flag—at Food Vision Asia, the recent high-level industry conference in Singapore organised by the publisher of FoodNavigator-Asia, Smyton said that the logo is used to Wales’ advantage in southeast Asian markets.
“We have our own branded character, and you will find Asian markets taking an interest in it. Wales is a tourist destination on the rise, its food heritage goes back hundreds of years and we have an industry that is vibrant,” Smyton says, adding: “Wales on the world map.”
But what is Wales selling? Even in Britain, most consumers would traditionally equate the country with lamb, mineral water and Caerphilly cheese—and probably not much else. This is, after all, a nation built on coal and heavy industry in its southern valleys, and tourism and mountainscapes in its centre and north.
What would surprise many Britons is that Wales has more products of Protected Geographical Indication status than anywhere else in the country. A European Union scheme that defends the provenance of traditional products, just as Champagne can only come from vineyards around Reims, it is applied to Welsh goods such as single-line salmon, Carmarthenshire ham and Welsh lamb.
This designation immediately identifies Welsh exports as premium products, especially in Asia, Smyton says.
He explains: “Wales is a country that really didn’t traditionally have to export, but now these exports are growing at over 600% in areas from beverages to meat production, while the number one mineral water in the UK, Tŷ Nant, is also Welsh.
“That has happened in the last five or six years. 253,000 people are now employed in the food supply sector. It has become a very vibrant manufacturing sector that is growing all the time.”
The premium nature of Welsh exports has led Smyton and his colleagues to place China in its crosshairs, not least for the “billions of litres of milk we have available for value-added markets there”.
He says: “China is the ‘holy grail’ for Wales. It is interested in us for infant formula and other applications. There’s cheeses, half-fat spreads, probiotics, flavoured milks: Wales does all of that.”
These can be made bespoke for such markets, especially as China is interested in volume imports of higher-price produce that appeals to its expanding middle classes.
“They are not so interested in the basics because maybe they are doing that very well themselves,” he adds.
He predicts that Tŷ Nant and other Welsh water brands will soon be in demand, as well as confectionery and seafood, in Asian restaurants. Oats for cereal bars in particular have been taking off, as have exports of crustaceans, albeit from a current low level.
But first Wales must come out from behind the wider British shadow to forge its own distinctive trade identity.
The opportunities are there in Asia, says Smyton, but first the market has to be “re-established and reinvigorated”.
It helps that Wales enjoys more decent recognition in one Asian country, thanks to the ownership of Cardiff City Football Club being in the hands of Vincent Tan, a high-profile Malaysian industrialist.
Though Smyton sees Malaysia “taking off astronomically” as a market in the future, it doesn’t yet have substantial demand, even though he believes the country would benefit from Wales’s multitude of halal products. “KL will be a key market for Wales,” he adds.
Britain’s forthcoming exit from the European Union might have a substantial impact on Wales’ exports to former British colonies via the Commonwealth network of nations, some experts predict. But it is too early to know exactly what will happen in terms of new trade agreements with countries like Australia, Singapore, India and Malaysia, says Smyton.
“Regardless of what way the market goes, Wales is very outward looking,” he adds. “Our trading and export teams are determined to make it all work.