Within the framework of the Belgian Royal Economic Mission currently taking place to the United Kingdom, Wallonia Export and GreenWin organised a business day for Belgian and British research and business stakeholders to strengthen synergies and economic exchanges in the growing Cleantech sector. But what exactly is the Cleantech sector? What role does it play in Wallonia? In-situ meeting with GreenWin and the company Beal, which is already well known across the Channel.
What is "Cleantech"?
Although mankind has been developing and mastering Cleantech techniques for almost 10,000 years now, there is currently no official definition of the sector. Less well known than its counterparts "Greentech", "Fintech" and other "Deeptech", Cleantech is nevertheless a sector that is expanding rapidly throughout the world, because it offers a direct response to many current environmental and health issues. It is commonly understood to include companies that support the development and commercialisation of clean technologies, those that address the roots of environmental problems.
Today, Cleantech activities mainly concern the energy, agriculture, waste treatment, depollution and construction sectors and aim to improve the efficiency of their activities by protecting the environment and health.
Walloon Cleantech in the United Kingdom
Green hydrogen and construction. These are undoubtedly two of the largest sectors that are currently enabling Wallonia to contribute to global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and combat climate change. There are currently more than 200 private Walloon stakeholders (for around 17,000 jobs) specialising in one or more Cleantech activities in energy and environment, and this number continues to grow year after year. Indeed, the importance of the new economic opportunities created by taking sustainable development at every level into account in companies' local and international development strategies really becomes evident here. And it is these opportunities that Wallonia wanted to share with its companies during the Belgian Royal Economic Mission to the UK in 2022.
To illustrate and reinforce the development efforts of Walloon Cleantech at the international level, Wallonia Export (AWEX) and the Walloon competitiveness cluster GreenWin organised a day presenting and promoting the Walloon ecosystem in Cambridge (Maxwell Centre - Cavendish Laboratory) with Cambridge Cleantech. The action included a presentation of the UK and Belgian Cleantech sectors, followed by several information sessions dedicated to Energy (hydrogen) and Construction in the presence of key stakeholders of the sector in research/innovation (University of Cambridge, Cranfield University, etc.) and British companies (Hydrologiq, Johnson Matthey, Thermulon, 5th Studio, IntelliHeat, etc.).
The United Kingdom has become an even more strategic market since the government announced a new environmental tax regime aimed at encouraging companies to significantly increase their environmental performance at every level of their structure (production, consumption, insulation, etc.). Wallonia intends to position itself with regard to these new environmental solutions and technology needs to be met on the other side of the Channel.
Meeting with a regular of the British market, BEAL International
Among the Walloon companies representing the 'Cleantech' sector during the Belgian Royal Mission to the United Kingdom, we were able to meet Barbara Thiry, Sales Director at Beal International (Fernelmont, Namur), a family-run business founded in 1978 and specialising in the manufacture of products for the construction sector (mortar, granite, plaster, etc.). This was an opportunity to share their experience with their largest export market.
Wallonia Export: Hello Barbara. Could you tell us briefly how your products are part of Cleantech?
Barbara Thiry: Our two flagship products are MORTEX® and Granito/Terrazzo BEALSTONE®, both made in Belgium and composed of 95% and 97% natural ingredients sourced in Europe respectively. Their formulas are neutral and pigmentable by the craftsperson directly on site, which allows for more ecological transport and avoids product losses. We always give priority to local products whenever possible. We also take care to optimise the production and sorting of our waste, which is disposed of in the recommended channels to allow maximum recycling and a controlled impact on our environment. Our raw materials are of Belgian or European origin. Our Research and Development department focuses on designing products that are resource-, environmentally and user-friendly.
AWEX: Are you here to prospect the UK market or is it a market you already know well?
BT: Quite well, yes; we have been exporting to the UK for more than ten years and we take part in trade fairs (Ecobuild, UK Construction Week, etc.), some of them with Wallonia Export. We could even say that it is a strategic market for us, as nearly 70% of our turnover comes from exports. We currently have applicators from all over the country already using our products.
AWEX: Has Brexit not had too much of an impact on your business?
BT: With regard to our customers or customs formalities, not really. It is more at the level of transport that it was, and remains, laborious. It has become difficult to find European carriers who are still willing to go to Great Britain. They waste too much time and therefore money. So, for the moment, it is mainly our customers who deliver to us themselves, in Fernelmont (Namur). We have had several blockages or delays that have hampered our activities, but we expect English customs to gradually become more efficient.
On the other hand, in terms of the new regulations, and therefore the formalities to go through, I think that this is a false fear. Any Walloon company that already exports outside of Europe will not experience any particular difficulties; it is more or less the same process as in the rest of the world.
AWEX: Do you export elsewhere in the world?
BT: Yes, all over Europe, but also to Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Morocco, the USA, Canada, etc. Beal is 47 years old, so we have had time to build up an extensive international network. This is the strength of SMEs of our size, i.e. we are flexible and can adapt easily and quickly to each market and customer. This is also what we did with the United Kingdom after Brexit took effect. In the end, it's not that complicated.
AWEX: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your business?
BT: Let's say it was a blessing in disguise. This period has allowed us to strengthen links with our existing clients and partners. They were able to take the time to test our products more, to make them their own. Normally they are very busy and rarely have the opportunity to do this. It confirmed the importance of maintaining and revitalising your network. In the end, during the pandemic, we were even able to create wonderful new stories with our customers, even those on the other side of the world and in the UK.
AWEX: And what are your expectations of the current Royal Mission?
BT: We would like to create a permanent sales point in the UK and to have stock there to supply our customers directly. That would make us less dependent on the vagaries of transport and customs. Thanks to the mission, we have the opportunity to meet a series of leads and firm up appointments that have sometimes been planned with customers, prospects and partners for a long time but that we never have the time to see. The mission also provides access to economic stakeholders that are difficult to reach under normal circumstances. Here, many of them are present and open to networking. So the prestigious setting of the Royal Mission is exceptional for our visibility and making us better known, even within the Belgian delegation. Sometimes we know our distant customers better than our own neighbours (laughs).
Framework agreement signed between GreenWin and Cambridge Cleantech
This memorandum of understanding aims to foster innovation by supporting collaborative Research, Development and Innovation projects between the partner members of the two institutions and the signatories themselves, support the (commercial or other) development of the clean technology industries and their respective communities and contribute to the internationalisation of the activities of the members of GreenWin and Cambridge Cleantech, through participation in international missions, hosting delegations from other partners, participation in various events, promotion, etc.