By Tavia Grant
A decade ago, Africa wasn’t much on the map for Phoenix Geophysics Ltd., a Canadian company that makes geophysical instruments used in research and mining exploration.
Today, it’s one of the Toronto-based manufacturer’s fastest-growing markets. And a good part of that success comes from one employee: Eritrean-born geophysicist Tesfakiros Haile, who is promoting sales in the region.
Mr. Haile is not only familiar with the cultures around the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. He also speaks Tigrigna – one of the two main languages of Eritrea – Amharic, English, conversational Hindi (he went to university in northern India) and bits of Arabic and Italian.
“If you speak the language, it opens doors,” he says in an interview at the company’s Toronto facilities. “People give you a chance, they listen. They might not know the equipment we are selling, but it builds trust and helps people feel comfortable with us.”
Since Mr. Haile was tasked with developing the African market, sales to the region have doubled to about $1-million a year.
The opportunity for Canadian businesses in emerging markets is huge. Economic growth in these regions is pegged at 6.5 per cent this year and next – far outstripping IMF projections of 2.5-per-cent growth among advanced economies. China and India will lead that growth, with sub-Saharan Africa expanding by more than 5 per cent a year.
And seeking new markets is more important than ever for Canadian exporters, who are desperately looking to diversify beyond the United States, home to three-quarters of this country’s exports. That much reliance on a single market leaves Canadian companies vulnerable when demand drops, as it did during the financial crisis.
Phoenix isn’t the only company hiring newcomers to help drive expansion into new markets. A new report released exclusively to The Globe and Mail shows almost one in five companies have hired a skilled immigrant to help diversify their global client base. Of those employers who hired immigrants to help them expand overseas, 93 per cent said it was effective, according to the March poll of 461 employers, conducted for the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council.