By Fabrizio Opertti*
ConnectAmericas is a web platform that connects SMEs from Latin America and the Caribbean to expand their businesses.
Heneka Watkis-Porter’s life was all about spice. And she wanted to make it even spicier. The Jamaican entrepreneur runs a company that makes sauces and other condiments typical of her Caribbean island nation, and she wanted to grow. Naturally, that meant exporting to larger markets. Going international is a challenge for any company, but even tougher for a small firm like that of Watkis-Porter. With limited human resources and financing, and not knowing much about foreign markets, how could she pull off such a feat? Where would she even begin?
At an international business roundtable held by the FINPYME program of the Inter-American Investment Corporation, part of the Inter-American Development Bank, Watkis- Porter, who heads a company called 10 Fyah Side, learned about ConnectAmericas.com, a novel, business-oriented social network that allows people to make contacts, take courses online to learn to export or create a business plan and find out about financing options.
Watkis-Porter set up an account on ConnectAmericas and bingo, right off the bat she started to find potential clients. She describes her experience as “totally incredible.” The portal was created by the IDB with support from Google, DHL, Visa and Alibaba.com. “I am trying to get my products into Colombia and I started to communicate on this platform, where companies from all the countries of Latin America are present. Being part of ConnectAmericas has opened up huge possibilities for my business, making it possible for me to talk with potential commercial partners throughout the region.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of small-and medium-size firms for Latin America and the Caribbean: they account for 90 percent of the region’s companies, providing jobs for 50 percent of the workforce. Nevertheless, such companies have a hard time finding new international clients and suppliers. Nor is it easy for them to get reliable information about new markets or find investors and sources of financing.
For a number of years, the Integration and Trade Sector of the IDB has been holding annual events to promote exports and investment. For instance, LAC Flavors hooks up hundreds of food producers from Latin America and the Caribbean with potential customers around the world. Outsource2LAC brings together many regional companies providing outsourcing and offshoring services to help them keep up with the latest trends in the industry and connect them with international contracting companies.
These events are great for companies that want to go international or who seek to consolidate their presence in global markets. But, not every business can attend, and the business networking events are only held once a year. Stemming from this reality, the IDB had the idea to create an online tool available 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – that would allow any entrepreneur to make those same valuable contacts and acquire the same know-how that would come with attending an in-person event.
Launched in 2014, ConnectAmericas now boasts more than 27,300 registered members and more than 310,000 unique visits. Four leading companies are the anchor partners of the initiative: Google, Visa, DHL, and Alibaba.com. The portal also is integrated into the online services of chambers of commerce and trade promotion agencies in the region and around the world.
Its services are divided into three areas: Learn, where users can find articles, online courses and videos; Connect, which lets them establish ties with companies, clients, suppliers and sectoral communities; and Finance, where companies can become familiar with all kinds of financing options, from commercial and developments banks to investment funds.
The portal’s first year of operations more than 3,550 business people took online training courses in such areas as international freight shipment, strategic planning and helping a company go international. Some of these courses were designed by FINPYME, a technical advisory service that the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC) offers to small- and medium-size companies.
For some business people who have started to use it, ConnectAmericas is like a bridge – a link to markets and opportunities that until now seemed unreachable to them.
Consider the case of José Luis Torres Galvez, honey sales manager for the company Yucatán Honey Bee, in Mexico. He was interested in breaking into the highly competitive Chinese market, so he signed up with an interest group the portal featured on that colossus of a country.
”I think ConnectAmericas.com is a very useful tool that lets me establish presence in markets that until now were not within our grasp.”
For some entrepreneurs ConnectAmericas has already borne fruit.
That’s the experience of Roger Vargas, sales manager of a Costa Rican firm, the Isabella Fruit Company. “I needed to find organically grown bananas for a client in New York. Using the platform, I contacted someone in the Dominican Republic who had the product and the amount I needed. It was incredible because the three of us held a meeting via Skype and sealed a deal for two containers per week,” said Vargas.
This post is part of a blog series on development effectiveness featuring stories on learning and experiences from IDB projects and evaluations. To learn more about design, monitoring and evaluation of IDB projects visit deo.iadb.org.
*Fabrizio Opertti is the Chief of the Trade and Investment Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank.