THU AM News: African markets seen as export opportunity for Wisconsin companies; Winners announced for Governor’s Export Achievement Awards

— The head of Milwaukee’s Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company says African markets present a huge export opportunity for Wisconsin businesses. 

Steve Wallace, the company’s president and founder, yesterday discussed demographic and social trends that make Africa such an attractive export destination during a virtual panel hosted by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce World Trade Association. 

“Africa is wide-open territory for the U.S. … it’s not easy, but it is growing,” he said. “It is very robust, and some of our global rivals — mainly China, is very active on the African continent.” 

The Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company sources its chocolate from the forests of Ghana in West Africa. Wallace explained this and other regions of Africa have many English speakers, and much of the population embraces U.S. popular culture such as music and film. 

“It has got a growing population, it’s large, it’s significant, it’s young,” he said. “They’re consumerist, they like to buy things. They’re technologically switched on. For example, the cell phone penetration rate in Ghana is larger than that of Wisconsin, so most people walk around with two cell phones.” 

Shannon Bryant, the director of global trade compliance for Harley-Davidson, agreed with Wallace that Africa is a “great market” with plenty of opportunities for U.S. businesses. But she said one challenge with navigating the continent is getting products moved in between countries. 

“Those product regulatory requirements, just because you could ship it to Ghana doesn’t mean you could ship it to Kenya,” she said. “You had to go through and get a whole lot of inspections, and it can be a little bit convoluted.” 

She said if African nations would “get together and harmonize some of those standards and procedures to facilitate trade,” then the continent as a whole would see greater economic growth and investment. 

Both Bryant and Wallace spoke to the rapid economic growth in burgeoning African markets that is outpacing other parts of the world. 

“Let’s face it, emerging markets are the fastest growing markets,” Wallace said. “If you’re looking for 8 percent annual growth, you look in Africa. The rest of the world is stumbling around at 1, 2, 3 percent growth. So you can look at four times the growth potential.” 

At the same time, Africa’s relatively young consumer base gives it an economic edge over countries like the United States and Japan with aging populations, Wallace noted. 

“The demographics are going to play a big role in which countries grow and prosper in the next 25 years to 100 years … you can’t have a growing economy with a stagnant population,” he said. 

He also described Wisconsin as an investment target for self-made African millionaires and billionaires looking to get a foothold overseas. 

His remarks come less than a month after state and federal officials announced Ghana-based Niche Cocoa is developing its first North American manufacturing facility in Franklin. The Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company is partnering with Niche Cocoa on this project, according to a WEDC release. 

“It is the largest African foreign direct investment of any kind in at least three years, so it is significant,” Wallace said. “Wisconsin now has a competitive advantage over the other 49 states when it comes to pitching companies in Africa.” 

See more on the Niche Cocoa announcement: 

— This year’s winners of the Governor’s Export Achievement Awards represent “the very best of Wisconsin,” according to Gov. Tony Evers. 

“When the world thinks of our state, they think of the quality of your products and the dedication of your workers,” Evers said in a video message played during yesterday’s awards ceremony, held at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce offices. “Your products are the best advertisements our state has, your businesses help build Wisconsin’s reputation across the world, and all of you create family-supporting jobs for our workers right here in Wisconsin.” 

WEDC Deputy Secretary and COO Sam Rikkers presented this year’s awards to three winners: Croix Valley Foods, based in Hudson; Madison-based Graftobian Makeup Company; and Winsert of Marinette. 

Croix Valley Foods produces barbecue sauces, marinades, seasonings and dry rubs at its facility on the banks of the St. Croix River. The company also packages food products for dozens of other Wisconsin companies. Since the Croix Valley Foods began exporting in 2018, exports have grown from 4 percent of its business to 22 percent, according to Vice President Lu Holter. 

“Exporting has made what was already a fun business even more fun,” she said after accepting the award. “We just got back from Paris four days ago. We were at the largest food trade show in the world, talking to countries all over the place.” 

Graftobian Makeup Company has been exporting its cosmetics products for decades, but has seen significant export growth in the past decade, according to WEDC Director of Global Trade and Investment Aaron Zitzelsberger. Export orders now make up a third of the company’s sales with products being shipped to 18 countries. 

Company President Eric Coffman accepted the award at yesterday’s ceremony. 

“This is a tremendous thing … it’s emotional,” he said. “Thank you.” 

The third award winner, Winsert, has a metal alloys foundry and manufactures parts used in engines for semi trucks, construction equipment and ships. About half of the company’s business is supported by exports, Winsert President Mark Coduti said. 

“Exporting is something that we have done as an organization for some time, however, it is a key cornerstone to who we are,” he said. 

See more on the awardees: 

— Wisconsin is getting a $15 million federal grant for efforts to boost the state’s child care and early education workforce, state officials announced. 

In a release yesterday, Gov. Tony Evers and the Department of Workforce Development announced the agency is getting this grant funding through the U.S. Department of Labor. The funds come from the Quality Jobs, Equity, Strategy, and Training Disaster Recovery National Dislocated Worker Grant program. 

The release notes operational details are still being finalized. But the “QUEST DWG” funding will broadly be used to provide employment and training services to hundreds of unemployed and underemployed people in child care and education; improve access to child care options for workers in the state; expand a program that helps employers purchase slots at existing child care providers; and other efforts. 

DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek says the grant will strengthen the state’s child care system “by providing training for individuals to become licensed and certified childcare professionals, ensuring more childcare professionals earn family-sustaining wages, and supporting a path to business ownership for more care providers.” 

At a panel discussion held earlier this year in La Crosse, experts said a shortage of affordable child care options in Wisconsin presents a major workforce challenge throughout the state. 

See coverage of that discussion here: 

See yesterday’s release: 

— An expert with the state Department of Health Services warns this year’s respiratory disease season could be “potentially very serious” for children in Wisconsin. 

Tom Haupt, respiratory disease epidemiologist and influenza surveillance coordinator for DHS, said rates of respiratory syncytial virus are rapidly increasing at the state and national level. 

The DHS site shows RSV is a major cause of respiratory illness for all age groups, and is the most common cause of bronchitis, croup, ear infections, and pneumonia among young children and infants. 

Speaking to reporters yesterday during a DHS briefing, Haupt said Wisconsin was averaging “well over” 800 cases of RSV last week. 

“This is what we would normally see in the middle of January in typical years, historically speaking,” he said. “The increase has resulted in many pediatric hospitalizations, with some hospitals nearing capacity.” 

RSV season typically begins in mid-December and peaks in January or February, Haupt explained. He said “that’s very unusual” that it’s starting in October this year, and warned the virus poses a greater threat to children and older people. 

Haupt said he expects RSV cases to continue escalating in the coming weeks, “ultimately resulting in well over 1,000 cases per week.” 

Meanwhile, flu activity this year is relatively low but steadily increasing, he said, with about 90 cases being reported per week. Haupt expects that to accelerate in the next few weeks. At this point, 18.1 percent of state residents are currently vaccinated against the flu, which he said is slightly lower than last year’s vaccination rate. 

See more on RSV in Wisconsin: 

— DHS has announced $8.3 million in CDC funding is going toward health service staffing at K-12 schools around the state. 

According to a release from the agency yesterday, the federal dollars will go to hiring and retention efforts for school nurses and other health staff, as well as wellness activities and professional development and extending working hours. The funds will be distributed to schools by the 12 regional Wisconsin Cooperative Educational Service Agencies and the state Department of Public Instruction.  

Gov. Tony Evers says the federal funds will “go a long way in helping hire new staff to fill these critical positions and ensuring existing staff have the tools and resources to support our kids when they need our help the most.”

See the release: 

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