Mr. Francesco Pensabene, Italian Trade Commissioner to India/ Director of the Trade Promotion Section of the Italian Embassy – New Delhi
By Neelima Agrawal
One Friday morning of October 2019, sitting surrounded by half packed cartons, Mr. Francesco Pensabene, Trade Commissioner / Director of the Trade Promotion Section of the Italian Embassy – New Delhi, as well as the Coordinator for India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, granted us one last interview before he moved on for his next posting to another country. Suave and witty, with a keen understanding of India, he invariably had the attention of the audience at events and other official gatherings. In the course of our interaction, he revealed his deep passion and love for India and the intensity he brings to his job.
Francesco Pensabene took charge of his new post in New Delhi in 2015. It was also around this time that saw the thawing of relations between India and Italy. And after a long gap of over a decade, on the invitation of Prime Minister Modi, Italian Prime Minister HE Mr. Paolo Gentiloni came to India in October 2017, and again a year later, the next Prime Minister of Italy, Prof. Giuseppe Conte led a trade delegation in October 2018 to participate in the DST-CII India-Italy Technology Summit 2018. The trade between the two countries has surged and the Trade Commissioner of the Italian Embassy has been a very busy man. Francesco Pensabene shared that in the first eight months of 2019 Italian exports grew by 3.3%, amounting to €3.9 billion in 2018.The India-Italy bilateral trade stood at $10.5 billion in 2017-18, up from $8.8 billion in the previous fiscal. In a first, he has facilitated the publishing of a comprehensive manual for Italian investors, the ‘India Business and Investment Guide’. This book in English is a goldmine of information for any investor into India. It contains detailed information about India, its trade and key sectors, taxation and other tribunal laws, GST, banking, forms, tips and guidelines on every aspect that a foreign investor needs to know.
Considering that he was leaving India in a few days, and his term was over, some of my questions seemed redundant. Nevertheless, he was forthcoming and gave an insight into the global nomad that he is, travelling from one country to another, owning it and moving on, to start afresh. On 9 November 2019, Francesco Pensabene will take charge as Director and Trade Commissioner of the Italian Embassy in Moscow and the coordinator for the Russian Federation Armenia and Belarus.
Reported here are excerpts from our conversation.
Had you been to India before your appointment in 2015 as Trade Commissioner?
I had visited India in 2005, when I accompanied the then Italian Minister for Foreign Trade, for the Indo Italian Joint Economic Cooperation Committee. I came back a month later to prepare the groundwork for the state visit of President of Republic Mr Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who was leading a comprehensive business mission, and if I am not wrong, there were more than 400 companies in the Italian delegation and more than 700 companies from pan India. It was a big event held at the Pragati Maidan. Again, in 2014, I was here in my official capacity as government delegate at Asian Development Bank annual meeting, which took place in Greater Noida.
How long did it take you to get that understanding of India and its culture? How do you communicate this to the Italian investors coming here?
This has nothing to do with time. One could spend years and not get it. For me it was very easy and natural as I am from south of Italy, I was born and grew up in Reggio Calabria, and my mother’s side is from Sicily. South of Italy is very similar to India. We are warm people. This is the place where human relations count a lot.And I found the same here.This is what I love about India. So it was not a matter of time, it was a matter of heart. I felt at home here. India welcomed me and I have India in my heart. I am at the end of my tenure.I feel extremely sad leaving India. It feels like I am leaving my own country.I spent every single day trying to absorb the richness and beauty of this country.
I deeply feel that India is not just a big immense vast country but also a beautiful galaxy.There are many sides to India, and one cannot just look at it as a profitable market. You have to come here and study the culture.What I always try to say to Italian companies is that we are ready to find a good importer for you, a good agent, a good buyer but I would like you to come and spend time here, talk to people, understand and try to establish a human relationship before a business relationship. I suggest to them to travel across India, beyond the metros.
What role does the Trade Commission play in facilitating business?
The activity of the Trade Commission can be summed up briefly under three macro sections. First is promotion. We organize events, workshops, business meetings, trade fairs, conferences, round tables, B-B meetings,just an industrial visit or a high-level forum. We send Indian business companies to Italy to take part in Italian trade fairs and also we do the other way around, organize Italian delegations to come over to India and take part in both Indian, Italian and International events, to promote their sectors. We promote ‘Made in Italy’ to Indian companies.
The second pillar is the technical assistance. It is not easy for a small and medium size company to go abroad. We are here to assist these Italian companies on how to do business in India and with India. We connect them with local trade associations, companies, bodies, buyers, organizations, importer, individuals, businessmen, corporations, institutions, we help in drafting a business plan, finding partners,in identifying lands and areas, fields of business, we guide that company in how to structure their exportation activity, their investment actions.
The third pillar is training. We do train Italian companies, young managers, as well as Italian students willing to work for Italian or International companies in India.
You have said that the backbone of Italy’s exports to India is machinery, at 41%. Could you elaborate upon that?
Italy is the second largest manufacturer in Europe. Of course, when we speak industrial machine, we refer to machine tools for wood working, marble machines, glass machine, textile, leather, ceramic, plastic, agriculture machinery, food processing, just to mention a few. Italian technology is in India in these segments, where we are either the first or the second largest exporter to India. Italy has the knowledge to be the capital for fashion, furniture, food, design, but when it comes to technology and innovation, industrial machinery, Italy is a global superpower.If you look at Industrial design or technology, design and technology is the backbone of Italian industry. That is the core of Italy
Please tell me about the ‘India Business and Investment Guide’. Why is it in English?
I wanted to write for European investors. For the first time in 2017, under my guidance, this office facilitated and curated this directory, in the framework of the first business mission to India for the state visit of the Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who is now a commissioner of the European Union. Last year we had the new Prime Minister of Italy, Prof. Giuseppe Conte, who headed a large trade delegation from Italy, with an aim to deepen bilateral cooperation in a range of sectors including trade, investment and aerospace. We have signed a MoU with Invest India. We had worked on the joint economic cooperation committee on the Indo Italy food processing working group in February 2019. In the framework of the Joint Economic Cooperation Committee, we have constituted a fast track mechanism, in order to face, analyze and solve problems faced by the Italian businesses. Many things have been done. The directory is a comprehensive guide to understand India. It is in English because the Italians should have an understanding of the language if they are going to operate in India.
You are now moving to Russia, which is very different from India. How do you prepare for a new assignment in a new country?
Russia is also another magnificent country full and rich of culture. It is a beautiful strategic partner for us. I have to consider myself very privileged to be honest. I will be Trade Commissioner at the Italian Embassy in Moscow and Coordinator for the Russian Federation Albania and Belarus. This is the first time I will be going to Russia officially.
The language is the vehicle to understand a country, to enter the heart of the country. I try to know their language before I go to a new country, because the best way of getting to know a culture is by understanding the language. I wanted to learn Hindi before coming to India, but Indians speak English beautifully, so there was not the necessary mental push to learn Hindi. This is what I will try to do for Russia as well. Before I go, I will try to learn Russian.
It is a difficult language.
In a way, I am facilitated a little because I used to study ancient Greek in school and I think that will help. In addition, many Russians speak Italian. Language is never an easy thing, but when one is naturally curious and you need to understand the culture of a place, you have to learn the local language. I love learning foreign languages and Russian is a magnificent language.