Greek products and businesses; their dynamic, their export potential and their competitive advantages; Greece as a brand and the future of the F&B sector in the global market. Mr Panayiotis Hassapis, Executive VP at the Greek Exporters’ Association, talks everything about the present and the future of an industry which appears to be blooming against all odds.

Exclusive interview: Vana Antonopoulou

We are living in uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting global food systems, disrupting regional agricultural value chains, and posing risks to household food security. Not to mention it has a negative effect on the economies of countries all across the world.

Greece, however, is proving to be an unlikely success story —at least as far as food exports are concerned. In fact, as Mr Panayiotis Hassapis, Executive Vice President at the Greek Exporters’ Association, explains, in 2020, F&B trade abroad has been up 12.5%, while with regard to brand awareness, Greece is becoming more and more visible.

According to the latest available data, Greek exports and especially food exports were not only unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but are steadily on the rise. How do you explain that?
In times of pandemic, public and personal health and safety is the number one priority. Consumers all across the globe have adapted their buying behavior and have been choosing quality products in order to strengthen their immune system and their body in general. And that is exactly what Greek products have to offer: quality and nutritional value.
The above, together with consistency in supply, were, during the pandemic, the key to the success of Greek F&B exports, which increased by approximately €500 million or 12.5% —i.e. in a 9-month period, from the €3.9 billion in 2019 to €4.4 billion in 2020— which is a major achievement stemming from the insight and effort of Greek exporters. Furthermore, in many cases, our competitors from countries such as Spain and Italy could not meet the requirements of each market, a fact that Greek companies took advantage of, proving once again their readiness and professionalism. It is also worth noting that almost all food categories are currently exported, while the most important are fruit and vegetables, dairy and oil.

Do you believe that international food traders are starting to recognize the exceptional quality of Greek products? What makes them stand out? What is their competitive advantage?
As I mentioned before, the competitive edge of Greek products with regard to international competition, is their quality and nutritional value. It is no coincidence that they are the basis of the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with the proper functioning of the heart as well as many other benefits to the human health. We live in an age of information and consumers want to have full transparency on what they eat and drink and this is one of the many reasons why the Mediterranean diet has gained millions of followers across the globe. This fact has helped make Greek products especially recognizable in international markets and the “Made in Greece” sign even more powerful. Apart from the various studies that prove this assumption, we at the Greek Exporters’ Association can also confirm it through the various trade missions we carry out: the visibility of Greece as a brand is becoming more and more powerful.
However, we should also give credit to Greek exporters, because the ever-increasing recognition of Greek products is a result of a specific strategy. Export companies have invested in international marketing and have taken strategic actions. There is no way you can attend international F&B trade fairs and not meet Greek exporters. Accordingly, all Greek products on the shelves of any supermarket abroad come with all the relevant certifications. In fact, there has been great emphasis placed on this part as well as on product standardization and industrial design, thus yielding results at both microeconomic and macroeconomic level.

Are there any Greek F&B sectors that have been negatively affected by COVID-19 as far as exports are concerned?
As you mentioned, the overall picture of F&B exports is a positive one. However, according to the available data, in the first nine months of 2020, meat exports decreased by 9.7% and sugar and confectionery by 11.9%. We are talking about two major product categories, which nevertheless represent only 2% of total F&B exports.

Is this a good time for Greece to create a certain brand awareness regarding its products?
Of course it is. This small “success story” in the midst of the pandemic must be communicated in order to further strengthen the visibility of Greek products and their approval by consumers worldwide. Especially in the Food & Beverage sector, brand awareness plays a crucial role and is a significant tool for the development of businesses. It is also important to point out that this is an ongoing process, a process that must be part of a larger communication strategy on the part of Greece and its exporting companies.

Do you think this upward trend will hold? How can Greek export companies ensure that foreign markets and consumers will continue to buy their products in the long run?
At the Greek Exporters’ Association we are by nature optimistic and this optimism stems from our achievements. As in any trying time, we have now, in the time of COVID-19, also managed to continue our work despite the adverse conditions and to keep exports at pre-crisis levels. We believe that in the immediate future things will stay positive and that exports will continue their upward trend. Furthermore, appropriate measures should be taken by the government to support Greek exporting companies and remove various obstacles. We, as the premier exporters’ organization in Greece, are constantly processing and submitting new proposals to facilitate trade, as to help the economy recover at a faster pace.
A typical example of our actions was to ensure the appropriate conditions for the export of Greek kiwi fruit in Thailand and Korea. Following our continuous interventions, teams of phytosanitary services from the two countries visited the Greek kiwi orchards to closely observe their phytosanitary status and to assess control efficiency at all stages of kiwi production. Our goal was to help sign bilateral protocols with Korea and Thailand respectively, thus boosting kiwi fruit exports to two dynamic markets.
As far as exporters are concerned, they, in turn, must adapt to the new conditions created by the current situation, and follow all health protocols and other requirements of international business, as they have successfully in the past.

Regarding Greek F&B companies and their export potential, what is challenge for the day after?
The major challenge το exporting companies is to further strengthen their competitiveness at international level and to become the main pillar of development for Greek exports and the economy in general. This is not a utopian objective, but a perfectly possible challenge. The characteristics of Greek products as well as companies, render them key actors and this is the way that we must act in the future; as key actors.
As we move towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is imperative to use and integrate new technologies in the industry, whether it is about optimizing production through precision farming or about locating and monitoring products during transport. New technologies are constantly being developed that can contribute decisively to the development of the industry and this in itself is a challenge for Greek exporters. At the same time, in order to enhance the companies’ competitiveness at international level, we must create cooperative schemes (clusters) with outward-looking orientation. Already, on the initiative of the Association, a cluster for kiwi fruit has been established, as well as the AgroTech Export Cluster – Agrotechnological Export Partnership for all food sectors.
It is common knowledge that the vast majority of Greek companies are small and medium sized and as a result they can not compete with large multinational corporations in some cases, so synergies can give a significant impetus to the development of the industry.

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