On a mission to open Brazilian borders

The B of BRIC, but is Brazil open to British business? Oli Barrett reports back from the Clean and Cool Mission

A colleague of mine is on the board of a well-known global company. A few years ago, knowing that he had spent time all over the world, I asked him to name his favourite city of all.

Despite his immaculate appearance and British good manners, he is a fun chap, with a twinkle in his eye. He looked over his glasses at me, paused, and gave his verdict in one word: Rio.

When you tell friends that you are spending a week in Brazil, it would be inaccurate to say that they look at you with pity.

Funnily enough, I don’t think I can remember quite as many offers to carry my luggage… It’s the B in the BRIC, known for its size and economic growth, and for the fact that two inbound events just happen to be the World Cup and the Olympics.

We’re here with 17 companies, all of which have cleantech (or alternative energy) solutions. They have been selected to take part in the week-long mission, and for several of them, this is their first visit to the country.

My role is to help to host the mission on the ground, and very occasionally to chivvy the guests along with a dash of British humour. When I heard that one of the firms (Embedded Technology Solutions) had a solution for monitoring dairy cows, I knew I had to be careful not to milk it!

At the opposite end of the spectrum, KPS is generating energy by flying kites (yes KITES) in a circle. So you could say that it comes with strings attached.

Doing business in Brazil

It would be foolish to generalise about Brazil – a country which covers four time zones and is twice the size of India. But that hasn’t stopped me before. This is a nation which loves to party, however that shouldn’t be confused for lacking a professional attitude.

We are advised that to make progress here, we need to slow down and invest time in building relationships. In the words of a senior bank director, “We like to date”. Which brings us to the question of the perfect partner.

Time and again we are told that British companies must become entwined with a local organisation if they are to navigate the Brazilian market. Unlike some other countries, this is not so much because it is “dodgy” here, it’s because bureaucracy can be stifling, processes can be long and slow, and certain people will quite simply prefer dealing with other Brazilians.

Some will be put off by the complexity. A couple of the people we’ve met here have encouraged us to pause, reflect, and to see the challenge in a different light. “Think of it”, shared one executive, “as the Brazil cost”.

Yes, he admitted, this is not a country without its hassles. But the size of the prize? As they say in Portuguese… “Enorme”. The state of São Paulo alone is the size of the UK, with 42 million inhabitants.

One of our companies is in the business of turning cattle bones into phosphate (for fertiliser), fat and stock (for food). Looking beyond British shores could prove profitable for them. Brazil kills roughly 62 million cows for food – in a year.

Even in the home of the Amazon Rainforest, money doesn’t grow on trees. We know that it will be tough, but that the potential rewards are extraordinary.

Making a difference

For many of the companies, their personal mission is as much about making a difference as it is about making money. Buffalo Grid wants to connect mobile phone users who are “off-grid”, with no access to power.

Its large, solar-powered batteries allow people to charge up and pay with a text message. This is their second mission, following a successful trip to India earlier this year which led to meetings with New Scientist, the UN and Google. Like others, their name is one to remember. Why Buffalo Grid? CEO Daniel Becerra smiles and reveals: “Because buffalos will charge anything”.

In 1502, Portuguese explorers arrived on the coast of Brazil. Thinking that they were at the mouth of a great river, they named the spot January River (Rio de Janeiro). In fact, they were looking at a huge bay. The name stuck.

Over 500 years later, visitors are well advised to heed the lessons. In Brazil, all is still not as it seems. The land of samba and caipirinha is an intoxicating cocktail of contradictions and opportunities.

From the physical beauty of Rio to the drive and scale of São Paulo, it is welcoming and keen to do business. Next time I see my globe-trotting friend, currently residing in Shanghai, I’ll tell him that I now see why he loves Rio. And I’ll be asking for his next tip.

The Clean and Cool mission is a group of 17 companies, supported by the Technology Strategy Board, UKTI and Shell Gamechanger. You can read more about the mission here: www.cleanandcoolmission.com

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