With the help of Maersk’s shipping and logistics expertise, ConnectAmericas is breaking down barriers to trading online by enabling small businesses in the Americas to connect to the global economy.
Rachelle Olortegui, Founder and General Manager of Enterprise Ecoinca in Peru, exports organic superfoods to USA, Europe and Asia.
Way up in the Peruvian highlands, more than 3000m above sea level, farmers are growing organic superfoods such as quinoa, amaranth and chia. Their farms might be small-scale, but their products end up on the shelves of organic shops and supermarket chains in the UK, US and Asia under the Ecoinca label.
Ecoinca is the brainchild of Peruvian entrepreneur Rachelle Olortegui, who was inspired to start an organic farming business after living in Australia where she worked at a nursery for native plants.
“I wanted to start a business with a purpose,” she says. “My focus was to help ensure better working conditions and fair wages for farmers, and a sustainable harvest without pesticides and chemicals.”
Social media for companies
Olortegui’s biggest obstacles were access to financing and markets. Having discovered the lack of local demand for organic produce, she needed an export market.
“It was very difficult to get the business off the ground initially,” says Olortegui. “I went to trade fairs. But sometimes you have to go many times without getting any sales because people have to get to know you first.”
She was then introduced to ConnectAmericas – a new online platform developed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) as a way to help SMEs in the Americas overcome barriers to trade. Maersk was involved as a partner, bringing expertise on shipping and logistics to the project.
ConnectAmericas works as a social media site for companies. Sellers create a free profile with details of their product, and interested buyers contact them directly. The site offers all the tools needed for a company to grow its business, from online training courses, seminars, business rounds and purchasing announcements from governments and big companies.
“It was a case of ‘right place at the right time’ when I discovered ConnectAmericas,” explains Olortegui. “For us, it was a way to get connected with clients around the world. You present your products to potential buyers from all five continents. In just a few days, you can kick-start negotiations that would have taken months to achieve through traditional channels.”
Enabling trade online
“When entrepreneurs start out it’s hard to get access to information, understand how to get the financing or find reliable companies to do business with,” says Rafael E. González, Maersk’s Partnership Manager for the project.
“A lot of small and medium-sized enterprises just don’t know how to get their products out to international markets.”
I went to trade fairs. But sometimes you have to go many times without getting any sales because people have to get to know you first.
Based in Panama, González, is from the Dominican Republic and has worked for Maersk for 13 years. He was motivated to join the project because he wanted to help small businesses in the region develop.
Maersk is investing around half a million dollars in the site on new features such as a transport cost estimator which launched in March, and an online training programme on international trade and transportation, to be rolled out later this year.
Direct link to Sealand
The aim is to link ConnectAmericas’ users to SeaLand’s website - Maersk’s intra-Americas shipping line. As SeaLand targets smaller companies (currently around 50% of its portfolio is customers with less than 500 containers) it seems to be the perfect fit.
“Our ambition is that a user can log on, estimate the total cost of moving containers from his city of origin to the destination, and then link directly to SeaLand for a formal quote and to book the freight,” says González.
Breaking down trade barriers
Today, ConnectAmericas has helped more than 20,000 companies close over USD 150 million in deals.
For Olortegui it proved a lifeline in terms of connecting her fledgling business to the global economy. “Our first contract was for one container of organic quinoa and we were super excited because this was such a big step for us.”
She now exports around 600 tonnes, equivalent to 24 containers, of organic produce per year. The next step is to expand into Asia and with ConnectAmericas’ help, Ecoinca has already made contact with buyers in South Korea.
“It has been a steep learning curve but I think we’ve shown that starting a business doesn’t only have to be about making money,” says Olortegui. “You can have a business with a purpose. Ours is about focusing on the environment, being sustainable and protecting our legacy.”
González believes the online platform is changing the way small businesses connect to the global economy. “There’s no other platform like it. It’s an innovative way to enable trade, and it indirectly helps society because more exports mean more development and more employment.”