When Paraguay Teas was created, Margarita Duarte and her sister Marisa were two young, entrepreneurial women from the city who one day went touring the Paraguayan countryside to talk directly to farmers. Many of them where men older than the Duarte sisters, who listened with suspicion to the strangers.
Little by little the Duarte sisters managed to buy, process and pack high quality teas for export to several countries. First with stevia, a product they had been selling for several years. And soon after with the the country’s most emblematic infusion: yerba mate. Today, their offer includes other better known products, such as chamomile and mint.
The main challenge was to try to change some very ingrained practices among Paraguayan farmers. And, moreover, to overcome gender barriers.
“Here in Paraguay we have quite a ‘macho’ culture,” Margarita explains from the offices of Paraguay Teas in Asunción.
How to overcome these prejudices? How to get Paraguay Teas to offer a product of the highest quality with international standards? How to support Paraguayan farmers to improve their income from selling their crops to the highly demanding markets of Europe and the United States?
These challenges are relatively easy to overcome for large companies, but for a SME like the Duarte’s sisters and dozens more in Paraguay and the rest of Latin America, the challenge of growth, professionalization and access to new markets are real obstacles.
These smaller companies don’t have the financial and human resources to develop and exploit information, and to contact networks that would allow them to conquer new business and innovation opportunities.
ConnectAmericas: A social network for doing business
A few years ago the IDB’s Integration and Trade Sector Division created a virtual development laboratory, the ConnectAmericas platform, in order to help entrepreneurs with small and medium-sized businesses overcome these challenges in Latin America. ConnectAmericas is the only platform of its type by a multilateral development bank.
For Margarita Duarte, the difference between doing business the traditional way and doing it through the platform is enormous. “Traditionally, businesses with foreign companies are made through brokers, which are sometimes unreliable and make the product more expensive,” she explains.
Duarte finds that through ConnectAmericas the process of closing a deal is much faster. It allows contact directly between companies while offering a more secure business environment, because of the endorsement of an institution like the IDB.
“I recently saw (on ConnectAmericas) a request from a food company asking for traditional products from some Latin American countries. They did not mention Paraguay, but the platform gave me the opportunity to contact them directly and offer them our teas,” she says.
The ConnectAmericas platform, inspired by social networks, offers the possibility of direct interaction between SMEs for the exchange of goods, services and business opportunities, but it is also a rich source of data about the business environment in Latin America.
The analysis of these data has allowed the IDB to refine a loan with the Paraguayan government to support the country’s export capacity.
Officially, the US$10 million loan is intended to help the country improve its export capacity and promote trade both within and outside its borders.
The program will focus on six business platforms: food, manufacturing, logistics, forest products, tourism, services and new business.
To achieve this, support will be provided to individual and associative business projects with technical assistance and specialized training, technological transfer for foreign technological business missions, inverse trade missions of international experts, training of technicians and entrepreneurs abroad, and the development of new markets, products or services.
The idea is to support companies in the expansion of their export basket with new products or services and new markets, while adding value to traditional external sales with the provision of innovative business development services tailored for new companies, particularly medium-sized and small ones.
This way, Paraguay Teas and other companies in the country will have the support they need to expand their export offer to the border area, and improve their promotion and commercial intelligence to reach new markets.
Thanks to her entrepreneurial experience, Margarita Duarte knows that this path is just beginning, but with the persistence of the Paraguayan exporters it will yield results. “This is only a stepping-stone, we’ll advance little by little,” she says.