Ivania de Gallardo beamed as she handed her business card to a representative from a Colorado company that promotes herbal products and explained her little Salvadoran company's desire to begin exporting to the United States.
"We have a line that is completely natural," she said yesterday, beginning her spiel in booth No. 303 of the Natural Products Expo East, an international trade show at the Washington Convention Center this week.
Two years ago Gallardo and her father started Botanikal and began marketing their cough syrups, colon cleanser and a tonic that Gallardo told customers stimulates the immune system.
Gallardo and her father were flown to the D.C. trade show as part of a contingent of 15 Salvadoran companies sponsored by Expro, a $6 million project by the U.S. Agency for International Development that is teaching small-business owners in El Salvador to export their products. The small-business owners said the United States is an attractive market for two reasons: The Salvadoran community in the United States is about 1.5 million strong and growing; also growing is the market for organic and natural foods.
Expro, which started in July 2003, has already helped about 55 Salvadoran businesses export $4.8 million worth of products to the United States, Japan, Germany and other countries. That's a tiny sliver of El Salvador's total exports of $3.2 billion last year, but the program has helped small businesses reach markets overseas. A few USAID trade specialists live in El Salvador and help guide small-business owners through the maze of regulations so they can begin exporting.
"The companies come to [trade shows] to get to know a new market, to see what the trends are and to see who the competition is," said Lisa K. Alley, an Expro trade specialist.
The three-day Natural Products Expo is expected to attract more than 20,000 people, including vendors, wholesale buyers and consumers.
USAID is working with about 400 companies in El Salvador. All were required to have fewer than 100 full-time employees, to provide their sales figures and other financial information, and to be producing products that trade specialists thought had a market outside of El Salvador.
The Salvadoran entrepreneurs here this week are selling organic coffee, fruit teas, cashews, soaps, lotions, wooden brooms, nutritional supplements, herbal medicines, honey, handmade hats, indigo dye and a traditional Central American drink called horchata, which is made of cinnamon, chocolate and spices.
Increasing Salvadoran exports is an important part of improving the country's economy, said El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, Rene Leon. The country imported $5.4 billion in goods last year, according to government figures, dwarfing its total exports.
"This [project] proves that our companies can export to the U.S. with the right kind of help," Leon said. "It is very important for these companies to get exposure. They have moved beyond the boundaries of the nostalgic market. They are appealing to all kinds of consumers."
For Gallardo, who traveled to the United States for the first time, the busy convention center was exciting.
In the weeks before the trade show, Expro helped her and her father, Luis A. Portillo, make new labels for her products that changed the brand name of their $25 tonic from Botanikal to Botanic, which they thought would be easier for U.S. buyers to pronounce. They printed new labels in English and stuck them on the bottles. There was no time to translate the 12 plants she and her father combine to create the tonic, making the ingredient list difficult to interpret for English-speaking buyers, one of whom was visibly frustrated.
Gallardo did not stop smiling. "It's our first time in the U.S.," she said. "We feel good. We feel like we are on the same level with the other vendors."
When her father, an herbal medicine doctor who does not speak much English, ran into trouble with an English-speaking customer, she stepped in to translate. In the first hour of the trade show, she and her dad made nine contacts. Within El Salvador, they are selling about $20,000 worth of products a year. They hope to more than double that through exports.
Other Salvadoran business owners said they were hoping to market their products directly to Salvadorans in the Washington area, which is home to the second-largest community of Salvadorans in the United States, behind Los Angeles.
"We know there are a lot of Salvadorans in this town," said Alma de Leo, an owner of Origenes, which sells a natural indigo dye used to tint cotton shirts and other textiles. "I used to sell to [Salvadorans] with friends and family in the U.S. When they see this product they feel like they are home. Imagine what our company could do in the United States."
Leo's company has doubled its sales to about $400 a month since it began working with USAID last year.
Proinca, a company that makes horchata, also wants to expand its business. They are selling thousands of packages of the traditional Maya drink to the tune of $400,000 a year, mostly in Central America, but that market is crowded with horchata makers, said the company's general manager, Karla de Ventura. The company has begun selling the product to a few Latino supermarkets in Washington, Los Angeles and Houston, but it wants to extend its market to non-Hispanic stores in the United States.
"The Mexicans have given tacos. Italians, pizza. And we want to give horchata," de Ventura said. Then she called out to a passerby: "Taste it. Don't be shy, mister," and handed a convention attendee the cold, brown drink in a paper cup.
Others offered samples of their honey in mini plastic cups on Dixie plates and handed out paper cups of their fresh-brewed, certified-organic coffee and lemon tea.
"Our country is so poor. We are looking for new markets," said Haydee del Carmen Zarco, manager of Cafe D'Cafe, a maker of gourmet coffee.
Standing next to her, fruit tea maker Cecilia de Cruz said: "We are trying to cross the border."