"Ecuador is the country of eternal spring, with 20 degrees Celsius all year," says Dennis Brito, with evident pride. An agricultural engineer from Aloasí, 50 kilometers south of Quito, he would come to realize that the climate could also mean enormous export potential.
One product of the growing conditions is the diminutive uvilla, often known abroad as goldenberry or physalis. The bite-site, orange-yellow fruit is one of the 36 Ecuadorian “cousins” of the more-famous tomatillo, a star of Mexican cuisine. Brito, who also studied business management, has worked for the past 20 years to develop the value chain of the goldenberry, from the selection of seeds to the design of better packaging.
Then, while looking for potential buyers on the internet, he came across ConnectAmericas, a platform that would change the trajectory of his business.
It was on the platform that Brito learned about LAC Flavors. One of the most important business meetings in the food and beverage sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, it brings together hundreds of exporters from the region with buyers from around the world. Participating in the event, he identified buyers from the United States and Canada interested in his goldenberry.
"The tool works well. You fill out profiles, and little by little, you learn all the options that it offers, like finding companies related to your sector," he says.
Since joining the platform, Brito says his business, Golden Sweet Spirit, has exported nearly 200 tons of its fresh and processed product (dehydrated, canned and in jams and sauces). He reports sales of approximately half-a-million dollars to the United States, Canada, England and Poland thanks to contacts made through the platform.
What is ConnectAmericas?
ConnectAmericas is the first business-focused social network in the Americas. A free online platform, it is designed to help small and medium enterprises tap into and develop international markets and investment opportunities. Created by the IDB in March 2014, the platform has currently about 300,000 entrepreneurs and 54,000 registered companies, more than a quarter of which are led by women. Over 4.5 million unique users from 209 countries and territories have accessed its content.
"It is really encouraging to see the impact that ConnectAmericas is having on export companies in the region,” said Fabrizio Opertti, manager of the IDB’s Integration and Trade Sector. “Increasing, diversifying and developing the export potential of our countries is very important for boosting their competitiveness in these times of digital transformation in the global economy."
Among its features, the platform allows users to publish and respond to announcements about businesses and government entities for sale; find customers, suppliers or partners by sector, country or verification status; and learn about business-support services available in their countries. It also enables users to register for national and international business events, apply for financing from banks and access free online courses, webinars, articles and videos.
Video: The platform in 120 seconds
The World of Trade: Smaller and Bigger
The world has "gotten smaller" with ConnectAmericas, says Aldemar Noguera, a small-business owner in Venezuela. His company, Global Service International, exports supplements and vitamins from Panama. He says the platform helped increase his sales by more than a third in the last year alone, and he has found partners and buyers in 11 countries in Latin America.
Noguera’s company, with a production plant in Florida, already had access to buyers listed by the commercial section of the U.S. embassy in various countries. However, he reports that contacting potential clients is more efficient and effective through ConnectAmericas. "It's amazing how quickly they respond and how important they are," he says.
Likewise, Lizeth and her husband Jaime had been exporting Colombian products abroad for years. With a lot of work, they had managed to consolidate their company, Tropic Kit, into an exporter of lemons and bananas. Then, they faced a new problem: not finding buyers, but securing a stable supply chain. "We had a customer base that was constantly asking for goods, and we were failing to supply them," Lizeth says.
Tropic Kit was invited to LAC Flavors as exporters and approached the IDB with an unusual request: to attend the event not only as an exporter, but as a buyer, too, becoming the first ConnectAmericas company to do so. As a result, the company began to buy products from Peru, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, and sell them to more buyers around the world. The switch from exporter to buyer meant a new paradigm and an expanded mission, Lizeth says: "We were born with a mission – to become the foreign trade department of small farmers in Colombia. Now, we want to do the same for farmers in Latin America.”
In 2013, Jaime, Lizeth's husband, also participated in Japan-LAC — one of the three Asian forums that the IDB organizes with China, Korea and Japan — to explore business and investment opportunities. "The trip to Japan was a total eye-opener," he recalls. "We needed to meet the globalized world."
Dennis Brito of Golden Sweet Spirit echoes the sentiment. "You have to get used to being a global citizen," he says from his Shungourko operations center, the Quechua word for "heart of the mountain.” Twenty years ago, the goldenberry was one of many fruits that grew in his grandmother’s yard, but it was not usually considered for eating in Ecuador. Today, the Germans die for it.
"One must have a firm conviction of where the light is at the end of the tunnel," Brito says.