Quebec company goes global

Written by Kara Kuryllowicz

Mon amie s’appelle Fatou Fall. Elle habite Dakar, dans le quartier Fann. Son école est située pres de l’avenue Cheikh Anta Dip.

That’s the first line in a laminated, six-section chart that helps Senegalese children aged six to 11 learn French grammar. Given its local references, the learning aid looks like it could have been produced in an office in Dakar. But in truth, it was adapted to Senegal’s culture and teaching system half a world away in Rimouski, Que.

“It takes a team of four to five people about one week to adapt one chart, but it helps the children feel at home with the material,” says Ginette Tremblay, president of Éditions L’artichaut, which co-created the grammar guide. Adapting products for local markets, among other tactics, has been critical to L’artichaut’s resounding export success. Thanks to the Rimouski firm’s increasing ability to penetrate foreign markets, Tremblay expects sales to hit $2 million in 2004, up from just $700,000 a year ago. If that weren’t enough to make the former schoolteacher happy, she can take pride in the special recognition for cultural achievement that Éditions L’artichaut received last month from the 2003 Canada Export Awards.

Founded in 1988, L’artichaut’s products include 75 charts and tools, such as the six-panel grammar guide, and a 37-page, color-coded grammar booklet that targets primary and secondary school students and any adults who need to tell their adjectifs possessifs from their pronoms relatifs. L’artichaut began exporting to Europe in 1995 after reaching the limits of North America’s small market for French-language learning materials, compounded by cutbacks to education funding in Quebec. Its international results speak volumes to any entrepreneur who believes small companies can’t compete abroad. Although Tremblay employs a staff of just eight, she boasts customers in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Senegal, and is negotiating with educators in Benin, Cameroon and Madagascar. Exports now generate 90% of L’artichaut’s sales.

Tradeshows are one key ingredient in L’artichaut’s export recipe, and often represent its first investment in a target market. “Exhibiting at fairs and conferences is very expensive, but they definitely play a role in our market research and sales,” says Tremblay. “We meet the teachers who will use the product and the decision-makers who will buy it face-to-face. We also have the opportunity to show people how our product works.” Although meant for school kids, L’artichaut’s charts and books appear esoteric to the untrained eye. Tradeshows allow Tremblay and Co. to demonstrate their wares to the masses. L’artichaut’s appearance at the Dakar Book Fair in 1999, for instance, marked the genesis of a three-stage deal with Senegal’s education ministry worth up to $1.1 million.

If tradeshows spark profitable interest in L’artichaut, trade missions do just as well. The Senegal deal was signed in October 2002 during a jaunt to Africa with a Team Canada trade mission led by Minister of International Trade Pierre Pettigrew. While participation has cost Tremblay up to $5,000 in airfare and accommodation on trips lasting up to 10 days, it’s worth every penny. “If I went alone it might take me five years to discover then meet these people,” says Tremblay. “Being with the trade mission gives me instant credibility and an entrée.” On one lucky occasion, a trade mission breakthrough came gratis: L’artichaut is working on a deal with the government of Benin after representatives in that country participated in a junket to Canada.

One area where L’artichaut may never catch a break is training, but it’s no concern of Tremblay’s. Although teaching educators the fine art of using L’artichaut’s products is a large expense involving staff time and overseas travel, it helps create converts who spread word of the products to other teachers and school administrators. And L’artichaut does what it can to keep the costs down. Training visits to multiple countries are often combined in a single trip to avoid multiple transatlantic crossings. In some cases, L’artichaut employees bunk down in the homes of local teachers. “In many instances, we’ve become friends,” says Tremblay, “so everyone is comfortable with it.”

© 2003 Kara Kuryllowicz

Originally appeared on