Posted on Thursday 19 September 2013 by Ulster Business

Interview Diaspora

In the first of a monthly series in which Ulster Business will be meeting members of the Northern Ireland diaspora and finding out about what they are doing to help promote the region, we talk to Simon Bell.

Simon is an international investor and consultant, specialising in emerging markets investment strategies.

He advises companies, governments and industry associations on strategies to accelerate investment and growth in key sectors of the economy. Simon is the founder of Armillary Ventures, a boutique investment firm focused on launching sustainable tourism and agribusiness ventures in promising frontier markets.

With family roots in Zambia and raised in Ethiopia, Simon has long been a proponent of private sector investment in Africa. He served as an advisor to the Commission for Africa and helped with the early design of the Investment Climate Facility for Africa.

Tell us a little about your business?

I always wanted to focus on addressing poverty in developing countries through private sector investment. I did that through consulting for 20 years but wanted to put my money where my mouth is so I started a micro fund to focus on sustainable community based enterprises in frontier markets. So far all four businesses under development are based on tourism or agricultural exports, which make sense as they are the best ways to create jobs in those countries.

Where is home for you?

Home and my HQ is technically London but only because of connectivity. I only spend about a quarter of my time there and the rest is split between Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Tanzania.

What are your links to Northern Ireland?

My grandparents on my mother's side are from the North and my mother was born in Banbridge but they emigrated to Africa when she was eight years old. I was born in Sri Lanka and my brothers were born in Africa and we've all moved around the world through our lives, but we still have relatives in the Belfast area and have always stayed in contact.

Do you feel a strong connection to Northern Ireland?

There is this intangible, sometimes irrational connection. I've never lived in Northern Ireland, I haven't spent lots of time there. But I noticed recently, in starting a the venture in Sri Lanka, a small tea and coffee exporting business, when we were looking for generator equipment I was drawn to the Northern Ireland names. When it comes to business you will always choose the best supplier, but there is always that little extra link and an element of trust that makes you think, they're from Northern Ireland, they must be good. There's still a very positive view or British and Irish engineering and entrepreneurship.

How do you hope to help NI Connections?

A lot of the consulting work I do around the world is with governments on attracting trade and being more competitive. So I want to help Northern Ireland with the lessons I've learned in places like Chile and Sri Lanka, to at least informally give input to NI Connections and Invest NI about successful campaigns that have worked elsewhere. There was a delegation going on a trade mission to South Africa and so I reached out to a couple of Northern Irish diaspora connections I have in South Africa to get them involved in that.

I left full time consulting to focus on my own investments in community based enterprises around the world, which are up and running in Sri Lanka and at the early stages in Tanzania and Latin America. I hope to be able to offer internships and take students from Northern Ireland to get some of the advantages I had from being exposed to an international environment at an early age.

Where globally should NI companies be looking for business?

I was formerly with US consulting firm AT Kearney and set up offices for them in Russia, South Africa and India. I also worked a lot in China. The big emerging markets are obvious to everyone but my own businesses are focusing on slightly lesser known places like Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Tanzania. They are growing incredibly fast and there is massive opportunity and yet because they are smaller economies they haven't crossed most people's radars. For an exporter of manufactured goods, or agricultural machinery, they represent a big opportunity. But also for the export of services. Being a small place I think there is an advantage of focusing on the lesser known markets where you are not going to be swamped by an American or Chinese competitor.

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