Switzerland has launched a new Business Hub in Pretoria in an effort to promote investment and economic activity for Swiss firms in southern Africa.
It is the first such platform for Swiss businesses in the region and comes at the beginning of a visit by Economics Minister Doris Leuthard to South Africa and Tanzania this week.
At the hub's official opening on Monday, Leuthard said that South Africa played a crucial role in Switzerland's international business strategy, pointing out that Swiss exports to the African nation substantially increased last year.
The new centre is run by Osec Business Network Switzerland - the platform for the promotion of Swiss businesses abroad.
Its chief executive, Daniel Küng, said that South Africa was a growth region offering opportunities for companies from Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
"I'm convinced that this is a market with great potential for internationally directed companies particularly since South Africa will be hosting the soccer World Cup in 2010," he predicted at the opening.
Georg Umbricht, chairman of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce South Africa, said he was also pleased to see more institutionalised cooperation.
"South Africa is a booming market," he pointed out.
The hub is designed to offer assistance to Swiss enterprises looking to establish a presence in the southern part of the continent.
It provides information about the local market, reports about business opportunities and helps establish contacts to trade associations and public authorities.
Swiss companies that have been active for a long time in South Africa are generally positive about the business climate.
However, they say there are a number of concerns, notably a shortage of skilled labour, crime, unemployment as well as restrictive currency regulations and administrative hurdles.
Free trade accord
Leuthard, who was elected to the cabinet last June, is leading a delegation of government officials and businessmen on her first visit to Africa.
During the weeklong trip she is scheduled to meet several South African and Tanzanian government ministers and visit Swiss development aid projects in east Africa.
Earlier on Monday Leuthard held talks with South Africa's trade and industry minister, Mandisi Mpahlwa, focusing on ways of boosting the presence of Swiss businesses in the region.
She said a joint commission would be set up to forge closer trade relations and promote vocational training. She praised the South African government's programme to boost economic growth and combat poverty.
Leuthard said she was very pleased that South Africa last week ratified a free trade agreement between the South African Customs Union and the European Free Trade Association, of which Switzerland is a member.
"It will further strengthen our economic relations and result in more growth and investment," she said.
Leuthard also paid a courtesy call to Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on Monday and met a delegation of South African business women.
swissinfo, Urs Geiser in Pretoria
The Swiss business hub in Pretoria is the first such advisory service and promotion platform for Swiss companies in Africa.
There are now 16 such centres across the world, including seven in Europe, four in Asia, one each in Russia, the Middle East, as well as in North and South America.
Around 50 major companies from Switzerland are active in South Africa, including Roche, Novartis, UBS, Credit Suisse, Swiss Re, Holcim, Nestlé, ABB.
It's estimated that there are up to 300 small and medium-sized enterprises in the country with Swiss roots.
Swiss exports to South Africa (2006): SFr729.5 million (+30%).
Mainly pharmaceutical products, machinery, medical instruments.
Imports from South Africa (2006): SFr1.261 billion (+13.4%).
Precious stones, including diamonds, precious metals, jewellery and agricultural products.
Direct investment (2005): SFr1.8 billion.
Switzerland is among the top five foreign investors.
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