Trade Forum Features

The benefits of standards pay off in the end

19 February 2016
ITC News
How quality standards and certifications
give SMEs a competitive edge

Product features and benefits make a given item unique and desirable.
Style, handling, performance, reliability, comfort and convenience all factor into buying decisions. If the characteristics of a given product differ significantly from its competitors and a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) can effectively provide it with higher value, that company gains a sizeable competitive advantage.

Furthermore, the quality of an item affects all factors that provide such a competitive edge. This impacts the customer experience as well as staff, operating procedures, warranties, goodwill, brand recognition and alliances. A 2011 study of more than 1,500 Polish microbusinesses and SMEs rated quality as the top factor contributing to current and future competitive standing.

The attributes of quality translated into a product’s characteristics and technical specifications constitute the product’s standard for its fitness for use. However, this alone is no longer an adequate description of quality per se. Buyers are imposing their own standards on suppliers that lay down conditions for production covering social and environmental issues, while governments intervene through the enforcement of technical regulations and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures for the protection of consumers, plants and animals.


Standards have always been closely connected with trade, with the objective of facilitating trade and ensuring the quality of the goods placed on the market. However, the increasing number of standards imposed by buyers, as well as disparities in technical regulations and SPS measures created by governing bodies can create significant obstacles to trade. Additional costs and delays related to such obstacles can render an SME uncompetitive compared with larger competitors.
Indeed, studies show that such requirements affect SMEs more severely than larger companies.

ITC programmes on standards and quality management help exporters in developing countries overcome constraints through expert technical assistance. Global standards form the central pillar of those programmes since standardization provides a basis for technical and trade agreements as well as technical regulations. ITC is implementing a number of initiatives in cooperation with national partner institutions under the auspices of programmes financed by the European Union (EU) and by Switzerland and through the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF).

World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements on technical barriers to trade and SPS measures encourage countries to use international standards in formulating technical regulations, SPS measures and voluntary standards in trade. The WTO requires that countries use guidelines and recommendations developed by international standardization organizations as the basis for conformity assessment procedures.

Interested countries are therefore urged to participate in the work of international standardization organizations. This ensures that international standards and guidelines can be more easily implemented both at the levels of production and conformity assessment.

Through technical support provided to different countries at policy, institutional and enterprise levels, an increasing number of SMEs in countries such as Bangladesh, Fiji, Ghana, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Senegal and Uganda are achieving certification for international standards like ISO 9001 quality management system and HACCP/ISO 22000 food safety system. Improved quality has led to opportunities with international buyers and led to increased exports and higher revenues.


ITC provides support to SMEs by providing and building a local pool of trained advisers in beneficiary countries. This strategy enables participants to multiply and redeploy expertise nationally and regionally, ensuring sustainability and knowledge ownership.
Importantly, the expert pool provides easier access to services otherwise not available to – or affordable for – SMEs. More than 100 advisers are part of the ITC network in standards and quality.

For example, four trained advisers in Kenya are now engaged in a range of projects to support more SMEs. In Fiji, a group of six women who trained for more than two years on food standards issues have established the Food Safety Association of Fiji, which provides training and advisory services.


ITC has assisted a number of certification bodies, testing labs, inspection bodies and authorities to upgrade their competence and technical capacities so that they can meet international accreditation standards and be recognized internationally. This helps export products to gain acceptance in international markets through increased access to costeffective and timely certification services.

In Zimbabwe ITC is working under an EU-financed project with the Standards Association of Zimbabwe to strengthen its capacity for testing pesticide residues, vitamins and aflatoxin. The laboratory has been refurbished with new state-of-the-art equipment and staff have been trained on the different test methods. The laboratory is now ready to carry out the necessary testing to required standards.

Under the EIF, the Gambia Standards Bureau has developed and published its first 10 national standards in a span of six months. The bureau also developed a quality assurance framework for cashew nuts and sesame. ITC provided training, tools and manuals.