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India beckons as green technology market for B.C.

Changing B.C.’s export strategy can spur a shift towards a greener post-COVID-19 economy, officials say – and the opportunity may be greater with countries where Canadians are comfortable sharing research results and intellectual licences.
Dr Nemy Banthia, chief science director at IC-IMPACTS. | Chung Chow

Changing B.C.’s export strategy can spur a shift towards a greener post-COVID-19 economy, officials say – and the opportunity may be greater with countries where Canadians are comfortable sharing research results and intellectual licences.

That’s the view of analysts and academics who see emerging markets like India as a pathway to establish Canada as a global green-industry player.

India has long been favoured as a “next big thing” export target by Canadians, but it also has disproportionally lower trade growth than other global markets.

The key, one Canadian academic noted, will be Canada’s willingness to share and invest in a shared knowledge-based economy.

“I think Canada has a tremendous potential to develop a knowledge-based economy,” said Nemy Banthia, CEO and scientific director of IC-IMPACTS, the Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence at the University of British Columbia (UBC) that works with researchers and business leaders in both countries to develop innovations to improve sustainability. “Now, we don’t do a very good job of that right now because the majority of our exports is still raw materials. And that’s where collaborations like IC-IMPACTS become very useful; you can develop collectively technologies on things like water quality, infrastructure and clean tech.”

India has already been pursuing green and sustainable initiatives for the past few years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the country has only recently been seen as a potential global tech manufacturing powerhouse as the West scrambles to shift supply chains out of markets like China post-COVID-19.

The United Kingdom, in recent months, has been increasingly pushing the establishment of a new global group – the D-10 – which aims to consolidate the supply chains of 5G and other technological sectors around 10 leading global democracies. India and Canada are both on the U.K.’s list.

Such initiatives, Banthia said, highlight the importance of trust at the highest level of government to facilitate knowledge-based trade – something that is needed to boost Canada’s green economy through exports. He added that it is also another reason why joint-research initiatives like IC-IMPACTS deserve more attention as a tool to facilitate that market entry through trust.

“Countries are always very skeptical of new technologies coming in,” Banthia said. “Immediately, when you co-develop a technology with another country, the acceptance rate of that technology in said country is very high. That’s what I believe the new model of international trade should look like.”

Banthia would know: IC-IMPACTS has already spawned seven startups, created by former students and researchers who worked on their projects at schools like UBC, experienced collaboration with Indian counterparts and industry stakeholders, then taken their work overseas to find commercial applications. Current market sectors covered by these startups include using nanotechnology to manage water quality, as well as creating new materials out of recycled waste to build sustainable roads and infrastructure.

There is ample room in India’s knowledge-based sector for B.C. green technology firms to grow. As of 2019, 64% of B.C. exports to India consisted of one raw material: coal (valued at $1 billion). The only other export commodities to report any headway in the Indian market that year are almost all – like coal - raw materials such as copper (18%) and pulp and paper (11%).

Allison Boulton , a veteran Vancouver-based export and international trade consultant, noted that there is a reason that India has traditionally hovered around fifth place among B.C.’s top export markets (behind the United States, China, Japan and South Korea), despite holding a population larger than all of those markets other than China.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, said Boulton, founder of ASLIN Canada Trading. She noted that in her sector of wine exports, India has an import duty of 100% – twice that of China’s. That highlights one of the challenges of including India in any global trade plan, in that India has not been proactively chasing or welcoming global trade at the same degree as some other major developing markets.

That’s something she hopes is changing – especially with India’s renewed focus on initiatives such as air and water quality, smart-city connectivity and other sustainable economic measures.

“China said years ago, ‘We are going to do international trade,’” Boulton said. “I’m not sure the same mindset exists in India with international partners. We know we have an opportunity there in cleantech, something we also have in China, because both countries struggle with air and water quality. So in those industries, because India is really moving along those paths, I think there are opportunities there.”

Boulton added that the local B.C. South Asian diaspora can play a big role in tapping into those markets in India, because the Chinese diaspora played a similar role in driving China to become B.C.’s second-largest trade partner.

“With wine, the cultural connections we had here in Canada wanted to take wine back to China,” she said. “We have a lot of cultural ties with India, so maybe you can find someone in B.C. who can get you into that market … because there will be things there you cannot find just from doing an internet search.”