Trading with China: Farmers Weekly visits Chengdu

What opportunities does the Chinese market hold for British farmers and how do they tailor their products to appeal to Chinese tastes?

Deputy business editor Jez Fredenburgh is travelling around the country to find out, after winning the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists Perkins Global Innovation Scholarship travel award.

This week Jez is in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province in China, famous for its spicy cuisine.

Plenty of British companies have failed here, including big ones like Tesco and M&S, because they didn’t appreciate the complexity of the market.

Understanding your customer is key, but in China, that is easier said than done. Not only is it vast, but the country is hugely diverse. It may as well be a continent.

My last column described cosmopolitan consumers in Shanghai ordering cream teas and aspiring to buy imported wine, cheese and salamis.

See also: Trading with China – Farmers Weekly in Shanghai

But a week in Chengdu, a city of 14 million people in the south west of the country, has taught me again how vastly different people’s customs, preferences and habits are here.

I’ve had lunch with a retired couple who buy from the local market each day and always cook at home because they want fresh food at a low cost.

Even if they had the means, I don’t think they would buy anything that had spent weeks on a cargo ship.

I’ve met a young professional who travels abroad for work and orders all his food using a phone app.

Like his peers in Shanghai he is motivated by convenience, but unlike them he doesn’t aspire to buy Western food, although he buys milk direct from the Netherlands because he thinks it’s safer.

But the owners of an upmarket health food shop in the same city turned their noses up when I asked if it bought imported food.

Their overall drive is safe and healthy produce – but they asked why should they trust imported food more. Instead, they go to great lengths to develop relationships with Chinese farmers they trust. Convenience and cost are not important.

There is huge opportunity for British producers out here, but we shouldn’t assume that everyone with the means automatically wants our vintage cheddar and high-welfare pork.

Coming out here to better understand who does, is crucial for any aspiring exporter.

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