Credit: 100% Amazônia
Since 2009, 100% Amazônia has been developing and commercialising environmentally and socially responsible products from the Amazon – from juices and freeze-dried fruit powders for consumption to oils and butters for beauty products. But during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, this women-led and owned business had many of its contracts suspended.
“We lost more than 15 percent of our sales to regular clients,” says the company’s Director Fernanda Carvalho Stefani.
“Yet despite the pandemic, the international market faced an increased demand for sustainable food and beauty products. So, we needed to adapt our entire portfolio to serve the new business opportunities,” Stefani adds.
“We also had to develop new suppliers to maintain our contracts, as many of our suppliers had their businesses and health affected by COVID-19.”
With the usual channels of communication and ways of doing business severely disrupted, 100% Amazônia looked for different ways to reach potential clients and bolster their supply chain. They turned to new initiatives, such as the virtual business ‘matchmaking’ events for Brazilian micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) organised by the UK government-funded Brazil Trade Facilitation program and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), through the ConnectAmericas platform.
“These events are an affordable way to overcome the travel barriers imposed by COVID-19 and also maximise the search channels for new business partners,” Stefani says. Her team participated in two of the events – one focused on businesses selling products from the Amazon and another one catering to the food and beverage industry. The connections the team made secured them GBP 14,500 in immediate sales and another GBP 14,500 for the next 12 months, besides initiating the contact with several other international buyers.
Matchmaking for Small Business Owners
100% Amazônia is one of 595 MSMEs that took part in five such matchmaking events organised over the past 14 months. The events focussed on exporting industries – food and beverage, digital services, textiles and fashion, and cosmetics – and filled an important gap at a time when major trade fairs and international events needed to be postponed due to the pandemic.
The events also went further than many traditional trade fairs in reaching out to often underrepresented businesses. For one, they had large geographic coverage in Brazil, with higher participation of MSMEs from poorer regions, including in the North and Northeast. Second, more women-led companies could attend because the cost of attending was lower than for real-life events and the flexible scheduling of sessions.
There is enormous latent potential for Brazilian MSMEs to bolster economic development and help reduce poverty in the country, but these companies are often severely limited in growing their business, including in reaching lucrative international markets. This is particularly true for women and minority-led businesses that due to social and structural constraints often do not have the skills, know-how, or contacts to reach foreign buyers and investors.
“National research shows that the negative effects of COVID-19 were even more relevant for companies led by women and other often underrepresented businesses,” explains Brazil Trade Facilitation’s MSMEs Component Manager Lara Gurgel.
The matchmaking events, therefore, were supplemented with additional support for women and minorities. The Brazil Trade Facilitation program and IDB, with the support of the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Apex-Brasil) and the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service (SEBRAE), developed 10 new inclusive learning products to prepare the MSMEs to participate in the virtual business rounds. These included a webinar and toolkit on communicating with international buyers, an online workshop on finance in foreign trade, and a checklist on how to prepare for a matchmaking event.
“The design of the events included a ‘gender and inclusion lens’ from the start,” explains Monnike Garcia, Brazil Trade Facilitation program’s Gender and Inclusion Specialist.
“For instance, the preparation for the virtual meetings included developing inclusive capacity-building content, engaging key gender and inclusion networks to make normally excluded groups aware of the events, and preparing a dedicated session for women entrepreneurs.”
“Using deliberate strategies to reach female and disadvantaged entrepreneurs by targeting their specific needs from day one helps ensure that economic growth is inclusive,” explains Sara Selleri, the program’s Gender and Inclusion Lead. “But this also creates a new ‘business as usual’ model, one that is gender-friendly by default, instead of a ‘gender lens’ being simply an add-on.”
“By applying a gender and inclusion lens, the program’s partner institutions saw areas for improvement that they had not identified previously, which may reflect significantly on the future initiatives they implement,” Gurgel adds.
In total, the events have generated over GBP 3.6 million in closed deals – more than half of this for women-owned and led MSMEs - and GBP 24.2 million in expected deals – 46 percent for women-owned and led MSMEs.
Understanding the Importance of a Gender Focus
“The events' results confirmed that initiatives with a gender and inclusion lens could generate a more inclusive foreign trade for women-led and owned companies and other underrepresented MSMEs,” says Garcia.
Saboaria Rondônia is another small business that participated in a matchmaking event. The first cosmetics company founded and run by rural women in the state of Rondônia, in Brazil’s Amazon region, Saboaria Rondônia is a community-based project working to empower women, preserve the environment, and develop the local economy.
“Before the pandemic outbreak in 2020, we were already preparing to start our export operations,” CEO and Founder Mareilde Freire explains. “However, most of our strategy needed to be reprioritised because of the COVID-19 effects.” The company needed to branch out beyond its few direct consumers in Switzerland and the USA to make sure that a slow down in one part of the business due to COVID did not prevent them from growing.
“Through the Brazil Business Connection: Amazônia event, not only could we start conversations with potential buyers in the Netherlands, Mexico, and Haiti, but also be connected to a network of women entrepreneurs and training tools to leverage our negotiation skills and export knowledge,” Freire adds.
The event resulted in GBP 24,000 in immediate sales, plus GBP 48,000 for the next 12 months to Saboaria. Freire says that the company still has a lot to learn to fully implement their export plan, but the matchmaking event and a special roundtable for female entrepreneurs, also organised by the Brazil Trade Facilitation program, were a key starting point for Saboaria Rondônia. The team has already applied lessons learned in their business meetings.
“The online matchmaking events are a tipping point for the greater inclusion of MSMEs, especially women-led and owned companies, in foreign trade,” Freire added. “I can already see a better future for us.”
The Brazil Trade Facilitation program is funded by the UK government and implemented by Palladium. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.