ANY EFFORT to diversify exports starts with agricultural products, preferably those unique to the Philippines, an official with the exporters’ association said.

Senen M. Perlada, Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. executive vice-president, said at a BusinessWorld Insights forum on trade on Wednesday that “when it comes to exports, (the opportunities are in) products that have high local content… These are really agriculture-based.”

Mr. Perlada said products based on coconut, purple yam (ube), cacao, banana and fisheries have untapped export potential, especially if processed into high-value products like coconut water, banana flour, chocolate, and virgin coconut oil.

“Diversification, innovation, and creativity are very important. But even with the basic commodities where we are strong in, we really have to take advantage of any innovation in these products,” Mr. Perlada said.

He said focusing on agri-marine products “will help us address a lot of the trade deficit.”

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the trade deficit widened to $58.3 billion last year compared to $42.2 billion in 2021 as import growth outpaced that of exports. Exports grew 5.6% to $78.8 billion while imports rose 17.3% to $137.2 billion.

At the end of January, the trade deficit had expanded to $5.74 billion from $4.51 billion a year earlier.

Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, Union Bank of the Philippines, Inc. chief economist, said at the forum that focusing on agricultural exports would also improve food security.

“It actually can hit two birds with one stone. We’re having problems with food security and how technology and innovation can come in and advance food security at the same time increase our food production so that we can export specific products that can only be found in the Philippines,” Mr. Asuncion said.

Mr. Asuncion cited the need to “retool” the workforce in order to explore more export and trade opportunities.

Clifford Academia, Aboitiz InfraCapital Economic Estates vice-president for operations, called for improvements in trade and business regulation to boost exports.

“We need to do something for our leap to be exponential. We need to work on the basics of regulation, making it easier to open business here, (lower the) cost of doing business, and all the related regulations,” Mr. Academia said.

Mr. Academia added that ecozones could also help upskill workers across the country as industrial parks branch out into the various regions.

“Industrial parks can undertake some interventions on talent development since we are not in the city centers. We can develop talent in these locations so that we can cater to companies that offer higher-value jobs,” Mr. Academia said. — Revin Mikhael D. Ochave