Lizeth Correa and her husband Jaime Ríos began exporting bananas and lemons from Colombia 14 years ago. Today, they sell over 150 products from at least six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including apples, onions, blackberries, and avocados. We are featuring their story in El Hub, the new podcast by ConnectAmericas for exporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
To achieve this great leap, their business, Tropic Kit, has had to reinvent itself several times. Over the years, particularly during the 2008 economic crisis and the rainy season that hit Colombia in 2011, the two entrepreneurs realized that their main problem was not finding customers to sell their products but rather having stable suppliers.
To find them, they began by changing the way they explore new business opportunities. In 2011 they took part for the second time in LAC Flavors, the most prominent food and beverage business forum in Latin America and the Caribbean. But this time, they participated as buyers, not as suppliers.
After the event, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) invited them to a business matchmaking forum in Japan to meet with buyers from the Asian country, representing a change in perspective that brought them one step closer to turning Tropic Kit into an international operator. Thanks to its drive and innovation capacity, the company now sells food from countries like Chile, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, and Colombia.
This story reflects how important it is for SMEs to innovate, in order to export a higher volume of products to more places and with better profitability, especially in difficult times, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Innovating is important because it allows one to rethink the added value of a product. Changing a recipe by adding more nutrients or offering sugar-or gluten-free alternatives, for example, increases the product’s value proposition. This innovation opens doors to new markets and helps increase profit margins.
Value can be added to unprocessed foods through a process known as “servitization,” or combining goods and services in exports.
A good example is the meat traceability software developed in Uruguay, one of the main meat-producing countries in the region. It allows knowing the history and journey of a product throughout the production chain. By adding value to inputs and raw materials, companies diversify their revenue streams by incorporating a range of additional services.
How SMEs can add value
To reinvent themselves and improve their performance, SMEs need to take three steps: define a goal, find the necessary resources, and draw up and implement an action plan.
But the magic formula is to have plenty of initiative and the desire to reinvent yourself. Fabrizio Opertti, manager of the Integration and Trade Sector at the IDB, recommends that SMEs not stand still, be curious, keep an open mind to give their products and services a spin, and add value.
Opertti says that Latin America and the Caribbean is not only the world’s supermarket with artisanal and nutritious products but also a call center and a major developer of video games and software. For him, the region has too much potential and talent that cannot be wasted.
Entrepreneurs also need to understand how to leverage technology. Innovating does not necessarily require technology or making hefty investments in it since it is only a tool and not an end. Innovation is not only about technology. Reinventing processes and methods are other ways to create and enhance value. That is why it is crucial first to identify what value you want to add to your product or service and then see what technologies and processes you need to achieve it.
This reinvention process was the type of lesson that Lizeth Correa took away after participating in the last edition of LAC Flavors, held in Cali, Colombia, in September 2019.
Other innovators also participated in this event, including Diego Romero of Prochoc. This Ecuadorian chocolate manufacturer innovated by combining millennial ingredients from the region, such as cocoa, corn, and quinoa. The result was Sunkao, a line of nutritious, healthy products of the kind that consumers seek in importing countries.
“You always need to think about developing and offering new options. It’s the only way for small businesses and startups to emerge and access large clients,” Romero says.
Another businesswoman who shared her company’s experience at that meeting was Juliana Dorronsoro, vice president of marketing and sales at Del Alba. This Cali-based food producer has evolved over 20 years from an agricultural company into one specializing in the healthy snack segment.
In recent years, it has launched innovative products like chocolate-coated quinoa for the Colombian market and exports top-quality macadamia nuts to 13 countries. “Innovation is what keeps us alive as a brand,” says Dorronsoro. “We’ve reinvented ourselves over the years, tailoring our products to the needs of different markets and clients.”
The Hub, a new podcast from ConnectAmericas
At the IDB, we know that stories like those of Lizeth, Diego, and Juliana and their companies inspire and empower entrepreneurs in different industries. That’s why we’re launching El Hub, the new Spanish-language podcast from ConnectAmericas, the online platform that helps SMEs grow internationally.
Through El Hub, we will share global entrepreneurs’ stories: their origins and setbacks, and the tools that helped them move beyond borders and open the doors to global markets. The first season comprises 12 episodes that will be released fortnightly.
El Hub is available on all major podcast platforms: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and on the ConnectAmericas platform. We invite you to listen to the first four episodes, “Reinvención” and “Lizeth Correa: u ahora, ¿de dónde sacamos esos limones?“, “Sabores de Exportación” and “¿Quién se va y quién se queda?”, and subscribe to the series.
The new podcast is one of several free tools, including forums, business meetings, online courses, webinars, and articles that ConnectAmericas offers to Latin American SMEs to help them export and reach international markets.