Trade mission to Colombia: ‘Both sides have a lot to gain’
A trade mission to Colombia visited Bogotá and Cartagena from 24 to 27 September. Taking part in the mission were 20 Dutch companies active in port development, renewable energy, water management, maritime industries, urban development and active mobility. Ambassador Reina Buijs talks about the opportunities she sees for entrepreneurs.
Trade between the Netherlands and Colombia has increased considerably in recent years. Colombian exports worth around €1.5 billion flow into the Netherlands annually. ‘These include coal, vegetable oils, flowers, fruit and vegetables, and Colombian coffee of course,’ says ambassador Reina Buijs. And Colombia’s imports from the Netherlands are worth over €1 billion. ‘They are things like medical equipment, medicines, chemicals, machinery and vehicles.’
Recent years have also seen a sharp increase in the number of Dutch businesses operating in Colombia. Around 300 companies from across the Kingdom are currently registered there, including 40 from the Caribbean islands. ‘Colombia is a close neighbour for our Kingdom. Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten are on Colombia’s doorstep,’ Reina explains.
Growing interest in Colombia as an export market is partly a reflection of the country’s improved security situation, says the ambassador. ‘When I visited Colombia 30 years ago it was an extremely dangerous place. Luckily the situation is much improved these days.’ Even so, there are still dangerous regions where a red travel advisory applies. ‘It’s important for businesses to know this, but at the same time there are lots of opportunities. Fortunately more and more businesses are coming to recognise this.’
Colombia is a country where the Netherlands focuses on a combination of development aid, trade and investment. ‘We look at how we can cooperate with Colombia and the Dutch business sector to achieve progress. For instance, Dutch companies have now created more than 30,000 jobs in Colombia. And employment is a very important issue here, particularly in connection with the peace process and alternative sources of income for coca farmers, who often live in poverty.’
It's no coincidence that the focus of the trade mission is on port development, renewable energy, water, maritime industries and urban development, says Reina. ‘We focus on themes that are high on the agenda for both of us, so both sides have a lot to gain.’
Car-free days and cycle paths
Mobility is a high priority for Colombia. For instance in its capital, Bogotá, where the trade mission kicked off. ‘The city is working hard to build a metro system and introduce electric buses and to create cycle paths. There is a car-free day just before the mission. For a city of more than 9 million people, and one that often has severe traffic jams, that’s quite remarkable,’ says Reina.
Bogotá is the cycling capital of South America, and its roads reflect that. ‘The last time I was in Bogotá was eight years ago, and since then they have added a huge number of cycle paths. Even in really big streets they have created space for cyclists in the central reservation.’
There is a lot of investment in sustainable mobility, and that brings opportunities for Dutch entrepreneurs. ‘The Netherlands has plenty to offer in this area,’ explains Reina. ‘We have knowledge and experience in cycling infrastructure, electric transport and urban development.’
Energy from hydrogen and wind
After visiting Bogotá, the trade mission continued to the northern port city of Cartagena. Here they discovered many potential areas for cooperation, from port development and water to climate issues and green hydrogen. ‘These are interesting projects that serve both our interests. We both want to invest in hydrogen: Colombia as a supplier, and the Netherlands as a buyer. What’s more, Dutch companies can help with the construction of infrastructure at the ports.’
Northern Colombia is also a very suitable location for generating wind energy. Dutch companies have plenty to offer in this area too. ‘Our knowledge and experience are a good match for the Colombian government’s aims with regard to the sustainable energy transition. So it’s a win-win situation,’ says Reina.
In Cartagena, businesses in the water management sector spoke with Colombian businesses and local authorities about possible solutions for the city’s water-related issues. ‘Climate change and subsidence have caused huge problems in Cartagena. A lot of poor neighbourhoods suffer flooding,’ says Reina.
To address this, the municipal authorities are eager to improve infrastructure and water management. And this presents an opportunity for Dutch businesses to gain a foothold. ‘By bringing people from both sides together, we hope we can facilitate cooperation between partners including the Colombian business sector, contracting authorities and local government, and support Dutch businesses and the municipal authorities in Cartagena.’
Tips for entrepreneurs
During the trade mission, participants learned about the local rules, customs and culture. Reina shared a few tips for entrepreneurs. ‘I have just started here in Colombia too, but I noticed a couple of things immediately. First, Colombians are unbelievably friendly and eager to help. It’s very important here to have good business relationships, so invest in your network and take the time to get to know people.’
‘Besides that, WhatsApp is incredibly popular here. People might not always answer an email, but you’ll get a reply to a WhatsApp message within a minute. Finally: respect the culture. For years Colombia’s image has been tarnished by drug trafficking and armed conflict. Colombians are not proud of this, and they prefer not to talk about it. So try to look to the future and focus on common objectives!’