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María Peña (ICEX): "Water is increasingly gaining more weight in our activities"

  • María Peña (ICEX): "Water is increasingly gaining more weight in our activities"
    María Peña, Managing Director, ICEX Spain Exports and Investments

About the entity

The Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX) (Spanish: Instituto Español de Comercio Exterior) is an agency of the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade


This week, a series of seminars on 'FAIR WATER: Tackling Global Water Challenges’ will be held in Washington, sponsored by the ICEX, the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade. It is an excellent opportunity to talk with its Managing Director, María Peña, and learn first-hand about the strategy of the institution to position the water sector at the forefront of trade and the Spanish institutional agenda.

Questions: What is the role of water in the strategy of ICEX Exports and Investments?

Answer: ICEX Spain Exports and Investments is a public entity under the State Secretariat for Trade, that provides services to facilitate internationalisation. These include training, attracting talent, implementation support in destination markets, as well as dissemination of business opportunities or contributing to the image of Spain abroad, providing an image of our productive sectors that stands for excellence.  

In the case of water, this image reflects our established capacity to respond and offer solutions for efficient, considerate and environmentally friendly management, through engineering, technology, and state-of-the-art concepts. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6, 'ensuring water availability, its sustainable management and sanitation for all' is probably the greatest challenge of the 21st century, and is fully in line with one of ICEX's commitments for the future: sustainability as a competitiveness factor and as a tool for internationalisation.

Water is increasingly gaining more weight in our activities.  The objective we pursue is to raise its profile and place it in the international institutional agenda, at the same level as other major sectors, such as transport infrastructure (particularly the railway sector) or renewable energies.

''Ensuring water availability, its sustainable management and sanitation for all' is probably the great challenge of the 21st century

Q: What are the services requested by Spanish water sector companies that seek your help for their internationalisation?

A: Our objective is providing integrated services, that provide added value, and customised.

The only valid strategy is listening to what the companies need and try — with the resources we have — to adapt to what they are asking for. I always say we are a public agency that is close to companies. Our mission is to support companies, something we cannot do unless we talk to them. This is something that everybody working at ICEX, and in this case, the excellent team we have at the Infrastructure, Health and ICTs Directorate, knows very well. It explains the trust companies have in us.

Therefore, most of them come with us in our activities (trade fairs, technical seminars, reverse trade missions, etc.) and they send their personnel in charge of business development, which is quite significant.

In addition, companies often request information services (ICEX has published 44 market studies on the water sector in 2017, 2018 and the first trimester of 2019) and services customised to their own company, provided by the 103 Economy and Trade Offices that the State Secretariat for Trade has abroad.

Finally, dozens of young professionals have received training through the Scholarship Programme for business internationalisation and are now part of water sector companies, including engineering, construction and equipment manufacturing firms.

Q: Where in the world are Spanish water sector companies most successful in terms of their international business activities?

A: There is never a single answer to that question, because ultimately sectors are divided into sub-sectors, many of which in the water industry have completely different markets. As well, many water sub-sectors, such as engineering, are service sectors, and there are no clear statistical data about trade in services. The internationalisation process has been quite similar in some companies and sub-sectors: specific projects (almost taking advantage of an opportunity) that end up, particularly after the crisis, into internationalisation and geographic targeting strategies, sometimes influenced by the type of contract.

Some regions have inevitably been key in this process: Ibero-American countries, the focus on the United States (essentially Florida, Texas and California), project references in Australia, the headlines coming from the Arab world, etc. However, the reality is very diverse, so we can find companies almost everywhere in the world. On the other hand, this is a logical consequence of the leading position of Spanish companies in the sector. In any event, so far, Mexico, the United States, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Peru, Australia and the countries in the Arabian Peninsula are the main markets if we consider the number of project references.

Q: Desalination, reuse, management, water resource planning, etc. If we consider Spanish companies, what technologies or services are in high demand?

A: Once again it is somewhat complicated to answer because we lack good statistical data. Clearly the four fields mentioned are those where Spanish companies have really shown international leadership, positioning themselves at the forefront of technology and management.

We estimate that in the past two decades, and especially after the crisis, Spanish companies have been awarded more than 250 major projects, worth more than 30 billion dollars (not adjusted for inflation). Usually three factors are involved: technical capacity, adaptation, and logically, financing.

However, not only contracts awarded to Spanish companies are important. Thanks to the experience they have gained inside and outside our borders, many Spanish professionals are occupying senior management positions in other multinational companies. That is leadership too.

Dozens of young professionals have received training through the Scholarship Programme for business internationalisation and are now part of water sector companies

Q: What is the role of multilateral organisations when it comes to carrying out large projects to address water challenges in the world?

A: Two variables explain the importance of multilateral organizations: the contract volume they generate and their role as prescribers. They are even more important in Ibero-America, where they are very active in the water sector.

Therefore, multilateral organisations are key actors, and even more for us, from a trade point of view, because our interests and theirs in Ibero-America come together. This is why we spend a lot of time and resources in working with them; we involve them in our activities and open doors for Spanish companies, which, in the past few years after the crisis, have become regular contractors for many of them.

In general, the ICEX is strengthening its strategy concerning international financial institutions, broadening our range of services. We focus on training, capacity building and disseminating business opportunities. Our online platform publicised last year more than 560,000 business opportunities, many of them in the multilateral market. One of our main services is organising meeting fora between companies and multilateral actors, whether at their headquarters, in Spain, or in the countries where the investments take place.

Q: On May 21-23, a series of seminars on 'FAIR WATER: Tackling Global Water Challenges', will be held in Washington, sponsored by the ICEX. What is their objective?

A: This activity is part of our strategy. There are two objectives. On one hand, promote Spain as a world leader in water issues among Washington-based entities such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and US entities such as the Millenium Challenge Corporation. Secondly, and this is always the objective of the ICEX, is to facilitate the work of Spanish companies, connecting them with key decision-making and prescribing entities, allowing them to network and share their capacity and vision. The first objective will be a result of the second one. Public officials will attend, but the participation of companies in each of the round tables, for each of the topics, is what will allow us to convey that, no matter what the field of concern of multilateral organisations, there are Spanish companies with the appropriate experience, ideas, and creditworthiness.

Q: What would you highlight in the event's programme?

A: We are very happy with the programme, a result, on one hand, of the intense work done by our teams here and in Washington, and on the other hand, of the trustworthiness of the sector, recognised in international fora, which has led to an excellent response by institutions. For us, it is an honour to have the president of the IADB open the event.

Q: What will be the role of Spanish companies in the seminars?

A: We want the sector and the companies to be the key players. Thus, it is not just an event to hear from the banks about their policies, programmes and projects. We have sought an active format that facilitates exchanges, where companies are not just listening, but participate, and where we can provide an image of the sector that stands for excellence.

The ICEX is strengthening its strategy concerning international financial institutions, broadening our range of services

Q: Finally, what new activities are planned in 2019 to further the support to the internationalisation of Spanish companies?

A: Traditionally, internationalisation activities in the water sector belong to one of three types: exhibits in trade fairs or fairs-conferences; different types of seminars, where Spanish companies and foreign clients or partners meet, and reverse trade missions. The same as in other fields in the infrastructure business, we have focused on specific business opportunities, working on them during technical seminars with the participation of local project leaders and interested Spanish companies.

In 2019 we hope to organise some 20 activities where water will have an exclusive or a major role. We have scheduled activities involving Florida, Bulgaria, Ecuador and Peru, with financial institutions in Ecuador and Bangladesh, and with senior authorities in Morocco and Mexico.

We should not forget all the prior information work. The events are the final touch to all the work done before, the economic intelligence and personalised services provided to companies by the Spanish Economy and Trade Offices abroad, from identifying business partners to supporting a strategy to enter the market.

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