Business leaders in Northern Ireland have called for urgent action to boost exports.
The number of firms exporting has fallen to under 1,500 and the region is heavily dependent on just 10 large companies.
Lack of knowledge of foreign markets and networking assistance are among the barriers facing potential exporters, according to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.
President Mark Nodder said: “Government must recognise the scale of the export challenge we face and commit to delivering an export action plan for Northern Ireland.
“More resources need to be targeted towards support that assists businesses throughout the entire export life cycle.
“The current support system is fragmented and fails to recognise that every business looking to export has different requirements.”
Mr Nodder is managing director of Wrightbus, which secured lucrative bus manufacturing contracts with Transport for London and further afield. The Ballymena-based firm signed a deal to supply 550 double deck bus kits for assembly in Singapore.
The Executive’s economic strategy prioritises export-led growth and has a target to increase the value of exports by a fifth by 2014/15. Mr Nodder said the number of businesses exporting goods has fallen from 1,700 in 2010 to just under 1,500 now.
He told Stormont’s Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee that better partnership between government and the private sector was essential to make it easier for businesses to find timely support or advice.
“Growing Northern Ireland’s export base is critical to the future prospects of this economy and urgent action is needed by government to make this happen,” he added.
Northern Ireland has the smallest private sector across the UK, 2.3% of the UK total, and is dominated by small firms. Almost 60% of businesses employ less than 50 compared to 47% across the UK.
Many of the gains made in the size of the business community during the strong growth period of the early 2000s came from an increase in the number of sole traders.
Exporters make up less than 3% of businesses and half of manufacturing exports were accounted for by 10 companies, with the largest firms producing 70% of exports, the Chamber of Commerce said
Potential and current exporters have said they need market knowledge, additional finance or networking assistance. Their priority was finding senior individuals based in the target market who had experience of the sector, understood how the market worked and business was done and enjoyed extensive access to clients, recent research showed.