IRELAND’s minister for trade and development, Joe Costello, would lead about 40 Irish companies on a trade mission to South Africa this week, he said on Tuesday.

The visit underlined the "key strategic importance" of the South African market and recognises South Africa as the economic hub and gateway to sub-Saharan Africa.

Last year Irish exports to South Africa reached €944m, bringing total bilateral trade to about €1.2bn. Exports this year are expected to continue to grow at about 30% per annum. But there is a need to balance trade relations, which significantly favour Ireland.

South African exports to Ireland last year were worth €302m, or less than about 30% of total trade. Most of this was fruit, vegetables and wine.

"Ireland has an open economy — 85% of everything we produce is exported," Mr Costello said on Tuesday. In addition, it was home to about 1,000 of the world’s biggest corporations, which used it as a springboard into the European Union.

"We are very anxious to improve the trade (between Ireland and South Africa)," Mr Costello said. "We are more than anxious to buy goods from South Africa as well.

"South Africa is by far our greatest focus in terms of trade, business and investment," he said.

The trade delegation would go on to Nigeria and Ghana.

Irish tourists to South Africa numbered 35,000 a year and this can be construed as "invisible trade", according to the Irish mission.