They may be separated by an ocean, a language and five time zones, but a new joint initiative sponsored by the British Embassy in Colombia looks to bring the two countries closer together than ever before.

The program, dubbed UK Colombia Trade, facilitates cooperation between British and Colombian businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises focused on science, innovation and infrastructure, areas of particular importance to the South American nation as it steps up its presence in the global marketplace.

British diplomats and Colombian business leaders joined forces this April to promote a bilateral trade of innovation and enterprise.

British diplomats and Colombian business leaders joined forces this April to promote a bilateral trade of innovation and enterprise.

According to the British and Colombian Chamber of Commerce, Colombia is already the UK’s fifth largest export market in South America, worth more than USD $200 million annually. The European nation primarily exports industrial equipment, financial services and beverages to Colombia, while Colombia exports oil, coal, metals and coffee to the UK.

Recent Free Trade Agreements between Colombia and major exporters, including the United States, Canada and South Korea further emphasize the importance of industrial competitiveness and properly functioning infrastructure, areas in which the new initiative hopes to offer assistance.

“We have great historic ties with Colombia. It’s an open and outward-looking country,” said David Willetts, the UK Minister of Universities and Science, on the positive partnership between the two nations. Minister Willetts, who also praised President Santos’ dedication to fostering science and innovation, visited Colombia this week to promote the UK Colombia Trade initiative.

Regarding the importance of infrastructure improvements, Willetts reminded that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, the world’s first subway system. As Bogotá debates how to proceed with plans for its own metro system, UK companies could help guide the process from concept to completion, according to the Minister.

The 2012 London Olympics also provide insight into the UK’s formidable ability to execute complex infrastructure projects quickly and efficiently. “Infrastructure professionals said ‘we’ll never do it,’ but it was ready not just on time, but early,” said Tony Regan, Deputy Head of Mission and Director of Trade and Industry for the British Embassy in Colombia.

Minister David Willetts encourages collaborative innovation firsthand, helping Colombia's CorpoGen with an experiment.

Minister David Willetts encourages collaborative innovation firsthand, helping Colombia’s CorpoGen with an experiment.

Indeed, some aspects of Colombia’s current business infrastructure offer similarly monumental challenges if the nation is to truly compete in a global marketplace. Ground transportation in particular can be prohibitively expensive in moving goods from the interior of the country to the coast and vice versa.

“It costs more to transport something from Barranquilla to Bogotá than it does to get it to Barranquilla from Japan,” noted Julio Arciniegas, Executive President of Willis Colombia, a multinational insurance brokerage headquartered in London. “British companies can help us make valuable improvements in that area.”

But British businesses have much more to offer than just technical consulting. Tony Regan is quick to point out that infrastructure is both physical and human, and as the motherland of what is now the de facto universal business language, the United Kingdom plays a major role in satisfying the considerable demand for English instruction in Colombia.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to find truly bilingual executives,” said Arciniegas of the importance of the English language in global business. “There’s a need to learn English, and this is an opportunity to collaborate to learn the language.”

Beyond the necessity of learning English, education remains essential to every Colombian industry, and partnerships between UK and Colombian institutions of higher learning, further strengthened by the Embassy’s UK Colombia Trade initiative, can help train the next generation of leaders in both nations.

“Education and innovation can expand every industry in Colombia,” pointed out Peter Bainbridge, First Secretary of Prosperity for the British Embassy in Colombia. “We’re looking at how to take research out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.”

As technological innovations help the world economy move ever faster, education will undoubtedly play a key role in helping nations like Colombia translate an incredible wealth of natural resources and human capital into prosperity and sustainable growth. Programs like UK Colombia Trade ensure that Colombia doesn’t have to go it alone, but rather can count on global partners with extensive experience to lend a helping hand.

“We all welcome Colombia as an open, free-trade country. Colombia is investing a lot in infrastructure, science and education, and it’s in the best interest of the country to spend that money well,” said Minister Willetts. “We think we offer historic expertise.”