Online retail site to sell Belgian delicacies to Chinese consumers


Among the many agreements signed during last week’s economic mission to China, is one that will see Belgian food and drinks sold directly to the digital-savvy Chinese


Belgium’s largest-ever trade mission came to an end last week with several sectors having held meetings, signed contracts or otherwise promoted their goods and services in China. Some 600 representatives from Belgian business, academia and politics travelled to Beijing and Shanghai, while a Flemish mission then continued to Hong Kong.

Well represented was the food sector, from fries to biscuits to fresh fruit. Sector and small-business federations introduced products at food promotion conferences as well as directly to Chinese consumers in large supermarket chains.

Supermarket customers offered free samples were impressed, for instance, by the taste of pears from Limburg. “The mission provided the opportunity to expand existing exports of fruits and vegetables to China, and to create additional markets,” said food sector organisations in a joint statement. “This is crucial considering the negative impact of the ongoing Russian boycott.”

The Conference pear was one of the focuses of the agricultural sector. “It was served at every event associated with the mission’s programme,” said the sector. “The Belgian pear is seen as a high-end product on the Chinese market.”

‘French fries’? I hardly think so

The mission also showed that Belgian beer, chocolate and biscuits have a strong reputation in China. The sector met with powerhouse internet sellers Alibaba and to see what could be done to offer more products for online retail.

The entire potato sector was also highly visible during the mission, with a distinct use of the term “Belgian fries” instead of “French fries”. Chinese importers were introduced to Vito’s WatchITGrow platform, which monitors conditions and yield in individual potato fields.

Vito, Flanders’ institute for technological research, also joined other Flemish institutes – such as life sciences research centre VIB and the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – in exchanging information with Chinese counterparts in the field. China was invited to the Interpom potato sector fair in Kortrijk next year, and Belgium accepted an invitation to feature at the China Potato Expo in Beijing next summer.

Alibaba is the biggest e-commerce player in China, and it is not easy for food brands from a small country to sell their products on one of its platforms

- Bart Horsten

The Chinese market poses challenges, so it’s important for us to get the chance to prove the quality of our products,” said Sonja De Becker, chair of Flemish farmers’ union Boerenbond. “The economic mission was crucial in this regard. Now it’s time to improve the trading framework so that a smoother export is guaranteed.”

A new agreement signed between Horsten International and the Tmall Global Platform, however, will be able to bypass trade agreements somewhat. Horsten International, based in Turnhout, assists small and medium-sized businesses in breaking into the Chinese market.

During the economic mission, the company signed an agreement with Alibaba Group’s dedicated cross-border e-commerce platform Tmall Global to dedicate an online retail site to Belgian food and drinks. The virtual shop will allow Belgian products to be sold directly to Chinese consumers without the need for a legal entity or distributor in China.

This differs from the traditional e-commerce platforms in China, which require a Chinese legal entity or a Chinese importer to be involved. This will allow food and beverages that are not already sold in China to gain a foothold on the market. There are some 654 million active users of Alibaba’s online marketplaces annually.

“The new Belgium flagship store on Tmall Global will introduce Belgium’s renowned food and beverage culture and heritage to Chinese consumers,” said Bart Horsten (pictured above), managing director of Horsten International. “Alibaba is the biggest e-commerce player in China, but it is not easy for food brands from a small country such as Belgium to sell their products on one of its platforms. Through this exclusive Belgium flagship store, many Belgian food brands can share resources and maximize their chances of success.” 

Eyeing the Olympics

The economic mission wasn’t all about food, of course. The technology sector was also represented by a strong contingent, including from tech industry federation Agoria, imaging specialists Barco and Showtex, which provides technically advanced stage equipment to theatre and event co-ordinators around the world.

These firms and more collaborated on TomorrowLive, a multimedia hall to illustrate how panoramic screens offer multiple options to create an atmosphere or present contextual information during the broadcast of live events, such as sports matches.

The organisations have their eye on the 2022 Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing. “Three key concepts – augmented reality, personalisation and interaction – work together in a broadcast to provide a series of elements such as the heart rate or speed of the athlete, a more dynamic sound experience or an advanced multi-sensory experience,” explained Agoria in a statement. “The visitor can also view the game or race from different angles, including those of the athletes.”

We intend to explore the forgotten piece of Chinese history that saw 135,000 Chinese labourers in Belgium and France after the First World War

Several federal and regional ministers were present at the mission, of course, with Didier Reynders, federal minister of foreign affairs, delivering a speech at a seminar on promoting gender equality in business. Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon (N-VA) spoke about the role of tech innovations in the transition to more sustainable cities, together with China’s ecology minister, Li Ganjie. Li also attended a seminar on green clean-tech by Belgian companies.

Finally, academics met with their counterparts in China, where there is already intense co-operation between universities. Staff at universities in Ghent and Shanghai have long worked together, for instance, and signed a new agreement to collaborate on a research project at the economic mission.

A joint lab for historical research was signed by UGent, Shanghai University and In Flanders Fields Museum. The team will focus on the role of Chinese labourers in Belgium following the First World War.

“Chinese labourers actively provided logistical support during WWI to British and French troops, and cleared the battlefields after the end of the war,” said UGent in a statement. “About 40,000 worked under a French contract and 95,000  under a British contract. It was usually the poverty in China at the time that spurred them on to make the long trip to Europe.”

Called “war labourers”, the economic migrants hoped to earn enough to improve their lives back home in China. “Apart from 100 Chinese gravestones in the Westhoek,” said UGent, “there are few signs of their presence during the war. We intend to explore this forgotten piece of Chinese history in more detail.”

Following the trips to Beijing and Shanghai, a smaller Flemish delegation continued on to Hong Kong, currently in the middle of social and political upheaval. One of the companies to travel to the “special administrative region” was Stephane Kolijn, brewer of Brugse Beer (pictured, top).

“There is a world of difference” between mainland China and Hong Kong, he told Het Nieuws van West Vlaanderen. “Western Hong Kong stands in shrill contrast to China, which you can see in the urban landscape, the interaction with people and just the general atmosphere. The tension is palpable and a bit grim right now.”

Still, he continues, “our meetings in Hong Kong were extremely interesting. Doing  business is totally different here than in the more traditional China. It’s much more direct.”

Photos, from top: Stephane Kolijn of Brugse Beer was one of several brewers to take part in the mission to China ©Courtesy Stephane Kolijn/Het Nieuws van West Vlaanderen; Bart Horsten signs an agreement to create an online site for the sale of Belgian-only food products ©Dirk Waem/BELGA; Busseboom, part of Poperinge, hosts a site dedicated to Chinese labourers from the First World War ©Ye Pingfan/XinHua/BELGA

Flanders Investment & Trade

Flanders Investment & Trade (Fit) is the Flemish government agency for international enterprise. It represents the region to the world’s investors.
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