UK Export Finance (UKEF), the UK government’s export credit agency (ECA), has hired four senior trade representatives in key emerging markets as it attempts to create new opportunities for British exporters, but top business associations are unconvinced that the move will drive more trade.

UKEF has named Jiang Wu as country head for China, Camilo Neira as country head for Colombia, Isaac Kahara as country head for Kenya and Dirk Van den Berg as country head for South Africa. All four are new arrivals to the ECA, and will be tasked with working with governments and multinational companies to identify business in each of these markets with long-term growth potential.

“We are determined to build the UK into an exporting superpower,” says Graham Stuart, UK minister for exports. “Having overtaken France last year to become the world’s fifth largest exporter we are conducting the most ambitious trade policy programme ever pursued by a major economy. We are negotiating free trade agreements and providing improved access to markets around the world, and will ensure that British businesses have access to finance and advice to take advantage of the opportunities created.”

UKEF has around £4bn earmarked to support projects with UK exports to China, while it recently increased the amount of support available for businesses looking to export and invest into South Africa from £2bn to £3bn. For Kenya, its appetite has increased from £1bn to £2.5bn, while for Colombia there is £4bn in export support available.

In their new roles in these countries, the four experts will have a particular focus on green industries and sustainable projects, UKEF says. This will likely be welcome news for environmental groups: last year, a parliamentary inquiry carried out by the Environmental Audit Committee found that, over a five-year period, UKEF spent £2.6bn supporting the UK’s global energy exports, of which 96% went to fossil fuel projects.

​​​​​​​“The global financial disruption caused by Covid-19 is likely to be felt for some time. We are building a robust business development pipeline that has sector and regional breadth – with an increasing focus on clean growth – so that UK exporters and suppliers remain in a strong position to trade internationally,” says Richard Simon-Lewis, director and head of business development, marketing and communications at UKEF.

However, how much these new hires will actually move the needle for British trade remains to be seen.

“I welcome the reinforcements of support on the ground for companies, but it is important to ensure that businesses have insight and understanding of what the opportunities are in markets across the world, otherwise it’s a little bit like putting the cart before the horse,” Anne-Marie Martin, director of global business networks at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), tells GTR.

She adds: “What would be much more effective and constructive would be for all of the different networks, both private and public, to complement each other and fill the gaps for businesses. There is definitely a willingness to move towards that more cohesive relationship on all sides. However, because there are so many agencies, I’m not convinced that we are all consistently linked to each other or we understand the complementarity each brings and if working together happens in a systematic way.”

A recent inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee, a select group of cross-party MPs tasked with examining the value for money of government programmes, found “major failures” in UKEF’s progress in supporting new – and a wider range of – businesses to export. Last year, for example, UKEF directly supported just 199 customers, missing its target of 500. A separate inquiry, begun in July by the International Trade Committee (ITC), also revealed concerns about the process of applying for support, with a high number of projects not meeting the eligibility criteria for UKEF’s digital approval system.

While welcoming of the news of UKEF’s increased presence overseas, a spokesperson at the British Exporters Association (BExA), which has long called for improvements to UKEF’s operations, tells GTR: “BExA does have concerns that UKEF is adequately resourced in order to meet any additional demand that these appointments may derive. We urge UKEF to do all it can to streamline and simplify its processes to make them more attractive for UK exporters and their overseas buyers.”

UKEF now has a total of 12 country heads operating across 11 countries, and says it will increase this figure by a further eight in strategic trading markets from Asia to North America in the coming months.