Following the study tour titled “Digital support services for exporting SMEs” organized by the MED MSMEs Programme and INSME on June 20th-21st where institutional and private exporters from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Jordan were presented with the important results achieved for Italian exports with the digital platform export.gov.it, INSME collected this best practice and summarized it down below.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAECI)
Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy (MIMIT)
Italian Trade Agency (ITA)
Società Italiana per le Imprese all’Estero (SIMEST)
Servizi Assicurativi del Commercio Estero (SACE)
Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP)
Italian SMEs and companies that wish to become present in international markets and/or already work with foreign markets and need a boost in this landscape. The platform is helpful for “conservative” SMEs that don’t export at all or don’t consider unfamiliar markets, or those who haven’t unlocked their full potential yet.
In 2018, the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) began a discussion on how to centralize all the export services offered by the country system in a single public portal to support SMEs, simplify the life of Italian companies and include all national and regional services of export and internalization.
The platform was born out of the “Patto per l’export”, the strategic agreement signed in 2020 by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with the aim of providing Italian companies with a single point of reference for navigating the world of export.
Subsequently, ITA, together with SACE, MAECI, SIMEST, CDP, Unioncamere and other institutional contributors developed the portal with the aim of including all services for companies in a single virtual space: the Export.gov.it digital platform.
The project of the new public portal, online since September 2020, has the mission to support the internationalization of Italian firms, especially SMEs, to develop their business worldwide. Through the export.gov.it digital portal, Italian SMEs are enabled to analyze the various markets to identify those most suitable for their business, and then promote their business on the international scale, activating e-commerce networks, participating in targeted events, identifying channels, intermediaries, partners and new foreign customers to aim for their business growth. Benefits from this platform include effective communication in the digital landscape, integrated promotion focusing on innovation and high-tech sectors, training on internationalization focusing on the digital literacy deficit of SMEs, maximization utilization of international e-commerce, strengthening the participation of SMEs in international fair trades and modernizing the traditional fair trade system focusing on digitalization, finance and subsidize startups and young entrepreneurs and IP protection overseas.
By accessing the websites of each contributor directly through the export.gov.it platform, companies can take advantage of many services:
Equity loans: they aim to support the Italian firms to buy a productive site in a foreign country through SIMEST’s own funds and a buy-back agreement with the Italian partner
Export credit support: SIMEST manage the “Fondo di Venture Capital”, a fund to support the internationalization processes of innovative start-ups and SMEs. SIMEST will support the Italian firm with SIMEST capital, as well as manage public funds so the venture capital can be accessible. In the case of companies outside Europe, SIMEST could offer a subsidy on the bank or other intermediaries’ loans (including CDP), obtained by the Italian company for the acquisition of its stake in the foreign country. This will reduce the interest rate of the banking loans.
Soft loans: they support Italian firms entering foreign markets in their growth and internationalization processes.
SEI project (Supporting Italian Export): In 2018 Unioncamere promoted the SEI project that provides first assistance for SMEs, digital export opportunities hub, and financial advisory services. SEI follows the SME’s journey starting from a training phase that will then evolve into an export check-up and export readiness assessment. Also, this project offered new instruments including training and support exports, vouchers, racing and contacting counterparts by using platforms and digital tools.
Business Matching CDP: it is an instrument inside the export.gov.it., developed with MAECI and SIMEST, that aimed to support SMEs in internationalization, create new commercial partnerships, opening new international markets touching China, USA, Japan and South Africa among others. This platform is algorithmically based, meaning that the system will propose partnerships, supporting also through translation services and B2B meeting organizations.
The objective of the initiative is to give Italian SMEs easier access to all services made available by the various public actors (both national and regional) for the internationalization of enterprises. Export.gov.it is a one-stop shop, meaning that it encompasses various services and a comprehensive range of digital tools in one single digital space, allowing SMEs to access export services with the goal to boost Made in Italy products worldwide and build around them the new strategy for the internationalization of the Italian production system following the Italian Pact for Export.
The main methodology around export.gov has started with the creation of a multistakeholder digitalized hub that is easy to use for SMEs that want to start or strengthen their international presence. Export.gov.it presents users with a 7-step approach that summarizes the company’s journey:
- Preparation: the platform presents an educational section where companies can find the essential information to start their export safely and independently. It includes services such as an export flying desk, a free assistance help-desk service to guide companies through the internationalization process, the SEI project, an integrated guide and accompaniment program, as well as the export e-book, an all-inclusive guide to setting up a solid and stable report business.
- Target country identification: a section in which all the information is gathered for companies to choose their target market consciously. There are tools for market analysis and for identifying country priorities.
- Market entry plan: step 3 consists in tools to build a network of potential distributors, customers and importers. it provides all the information to identify foreign partners and facilitate market entry.
- Promotion and digitalization: In this section, companies can find digital tools and facilities during the search for personnel abroad, customized consulting and subsidized financing dedicated solely to SMEs.
- Contract negotiation: this step offers protection for business investments. The website provides all the information and services for the business evaluation, loan guarantee and credit insurance services.
- Risk mitigation: this section is dedicated to managing risks and embarking on an internationalization journey with peace of mind through the assistance of ITA in resolving trade disputes, and SACE.
- and, finally, Growth strategy. The last step is useful to consolidate and expand companies’ exports. The platform subsequently gives the possibility to attract foreign investors.
The platform’s governance is structured with the sponsor, Product Managers and management board (SACE), and three digital work groups: workgroup digital, stakeholders, and communication workgroup, which increase the visibility of the website. Integration of other satellite digital tools such as matchmaking platforms, webinar spaces and/or export assessment/planning instruments provided by partner institutions is a crucial characteristic of the digital space, that is continuously updated to ensure efficiency and relevancy at any given moment.
Creation of a centralized hub where all relevant information for SMEs that wish to be present on the international level can be found with just a couple of clicks. Users have priority access to press releases and various tools such as training, planning and matchmaking. Export.gov.it has reached over 99000 companies in Italy and will continue to offer services to newcomers or SMEs that are just now getting started.
Successful integration with various digital tools developed by relevant institutional realities such as CDP’s algorithmic Business Matchmaking platform or ITA’s digital export academy.
Effectively boosted Italian exports which have reached record levels in the past years. In 2022 Italian exports reached 625 billion euros according to the latest data, which means almost 10 billion more than in the same month of 2021 for the trade balance, but a manufacturing surplus of over 100 billion euros. ISTAT data in 2022 registered over 20% growth.
A multi-stakeholder initiative where collaboration was key, a multitude of information that had to be summarized and organized in an efficient manner, updating useful information constantly and well after platform launch, the necessity of a multilanguage approach, lack of digital skills in certain areas for SMEs. Also, a risk was aiming too high and not being able to provide a well-rounded experience for users.
Even if challenging, having various actors on board meant continuous feedback and integration with relevant tools, as well as a large team of experts working on this platform. All the institutional partners give their own services. MAECI offers information about foreign markets and opportunities to participate in international tenders, training for companies willing to start exporting or improvement for companies already exporting abroad. The Italian Trade Agency offered its contribution to discovering foreign markets, sectors and opportunities, preparing to enter these markets, and promoting services for Italian companies with a multichannel approach (trade shows, conferences, B2B meetings, market research and communication campaigns). SACE, backed by the state, focuses on loans granted by credit institutions, offers debt collections, judicial and insolvency proceedings, and guarantees for tenders. SIMEST subsidized funding for internationalization, venture capital participation and venture capital fund. CDP supported companies to achieve innovation and growth goals, Unioncamere, supported in document production necessary or export, promoted enterprises in international markets: organisation of trade missions, access to EU initiatives and programmes, implementation of international agreements, assistance in attracting foreign direct investment, promotion of commerce with foreign countries, support on the patents and licenses acquisition. Finally, Conferenza delle Regioni e delle Province Autonome presents and promotes current regional programmes and initiatives.
Also, a 24/7 helpdesk and digital chatbot have been created to support entrepreneurs wherever and whenever they need it.
It is important to focus on the “how” rather than the “what”: meaning that SMEs’ issues and problems are well-known by all relevant actors across the globe, however, what is missing in this picture is often a solution-oriented approach.
Collaboration is key: it is important to create a network of relevant institutions that are oriented towards the clients and entrepreneurs in order to unlock their full potential. Strategizing is important, but so is usability, as it is true that all the services on export.gov.it are provided by different institutions, however, the company’s journey on the platform is unique and a standalone experience that must run smoothly and efficiently.
Digital and financial alphabetization is crucial for business owners and workers in 2023 and lacks must be addressed.
Export.gov.it is an excellent example of collaboration between ministries and other institutions in an efficient and solution-oriented way that can be replicable in other countries or geographic regions. The study tour conducted in Rome by INSME and the MED MSMEs programme proved that it was possible to share this know-how and lessons learned in order to inspire action and collaboration in the Southern Mediterranean region. Italy’s effort in the export field is a focal case study characterized by redesigning public support for exportations, implementing the digital transition, and strengthening human capital.