Ireland’s food and beverage sectors are facing a hard year ahead due to Brexit uncertainty, and we need to focus on growing our European exports, according to Nicola Byrne, president of the Irish Exporters’ Association.

Nicola is set to address the annual Agricultural Science Association (ASA) conference in the Killashee Hotel, Naas on Friday, September 7.

Nicola Byrne, who will contribute to a panel discussion on the opportunities for agri-food on the global market, said: “Anybody who trades with the UK is going to be affected.”

Our exports are still showing growth in other markets, so achieving market entry into China for our beef is a huge achievement for Ireland this year, and credit due to everybody who worked so hard to achieve this.

“On the other hand, we have seen a lot of closures where sterling weakening has seen their doors close. The lesson for the future is we need to have a differentiator; whether its quality, value added or innovation.

“We need to be pushing hard this year as we face a lot of competition from our fellow Europeans – and global markets – who operate with a much cheaper cost base,” she said.

Difficulties for the agri sector

“I think it is very difficult for the agri sector due to the sterling. Ireland needs to work harder on costs in terms of electricity, gas and insurance in order to ensure that we are competitive as a country.

“We need to ensure that we all play our part in keeping this sector strong and viable for the future. We can’t be dependent on currency movements to make this industry viable.

“We also need to focus on growing our European exports to ensure that we have a wide spread of markets to protect against fluctuations.

“Neither of these are instant fixes, but with time and focus on both issues, we could see our agri-businesses grow even more than they currently are,” Byrne commented.

On Brexit, she said: “Part of me is hoping that common sense prevails and that all sides will put trade first.

Trade is the tide that lifts all boats while protectionism and borders kill all hope of long-term growth. I am hopeful that reality, rather than idealism, hits the negotiations in the coming crucial months.

Her priorities for the year ahead are building relationships and business.

“Business is only about people, and finding new customers and new markets is hard work and you have to go knocking on doors.”

First Ever Female

Byrne’s appointment as president of the Irish Exporters’ Association in November 2017 made her the first ever female to hold the role in the association’s 65-year history. She has founded several successful businesses including: Cloud 90; and 11890 directory enquiries.

A member of Fingal LEO (Local Enterprise Office) for the past decade, she helps to fund start-ups at a local level. She is a European ambassador for female entrepreneurship, and has held roles with the DCU Ryan Academy for the entrepreneurship advisory board from 2012 to 2014. She acted as chairperson of the RBS Ulster Bank Business Achievers Awards 2011 and 2012.

Ireland has been an amazing place to grow up and work. I was told I could be anything I wanted and I was just lucky to be born at a time where everything was changing and to have benefited from having choices.

“I think both sexes should have choices and we don’t need to prescribe a life any more for either sex.

“We can empower all to make the choices that suit where they want to go and be what they want to be. I enjoy working; it doesn’t happen to matter whether its with a woman or a man. Talent doesn’t come in one sex or the other. It’s everywhere.”