More needs to be done to boost exports, the head of Northern Ireland’s jobs creation body has warned.
Thousands of new posts have been created but there has not been enough growth in the value of goods sent to other countries, Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton said.
Exports were worth £5.68 billion to the Northern Ireland economy in 2012-13.
But with increased demand for goods in places like China and the emergence from conflict in Libya and, to some extent, Afghanistan, there are plenty of untapped growth markets.
Mr Hamilton said: “Collectively, we have set ourselves on an export-led growth strategy.
“Although it is good to see growth in jobs, investment and R&D (research and development), strategically at the heart of it we need to see much more success and delivery on the export side. That is an area in which we are still challenging.”
Around £1.5 billion of exports were linked to emerging economies including Asia, a market which is growing well but still represents a relatively small part of total sales. The rest of the trade was with the Americas and Europe - countries which have suffered from recession.
The value of sales to Europe slumped at a rate of 3%, Mr Hamilton said.
“America continues to decline, and, from our point of view, that is one of the bigger ones,” he said.
Mr Hamilton said 18% of exports go to the Americas.
“Therefore, any marked decrease will have a big impact. It is running at almost 20% of our exports.”
The Executive has put a lot of focus on the developing economies, some of which are rapidly industrialising and spawning an ambitious middle class with an insatiable demand for consumer goods. Asia Pacific is up 10% while India, the Middle East and Africa are up 16%.
“If you net those two (markets) out, it shows that our exports have declined by 1% and while we do not want to be there, particularly with a target of 20% growth over the Programme for Government period, you need to factor in the increase in sales from firms in Northern Ireland to Great Britain, which is not counted as exports.
“That is fine as a definition, but those exports do add value to Northern Ireland firms, and many of them have found solace in the midst of the storms that they face on export markets by increasing their sales to GB,” he said.
“If you were to add the GB sales into the picture, that -0.9% turns into a positive figure. There is a net increase in sales out of Northern Ireland, but they are not captured in those numbers.”
A total of 4,000 jobs were promoted during a six-month period earlier this year, a 90% increase on the same period last year.
Mr Hamilton said: “Last year was a really good year for us but many of our jobs came in the last three months of the year, which created a lot of pressure on the organisation.
“We have managed to smooth that a bit, and having 4,000 jobs signed up in the first six months of this year is a really good position to be in.”