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On 10 and 11 November, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) held a regional online seminar to discuss the role of Business Support Organizations in Eastern Partnership countries in delivering impact services for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in times of crisis. The event took place in the framework of the “Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade - an EU4Business initiative”, a project funded by the European Union.

Since its inception in 2017, the “Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade project” has been working with Business Support Organizations (BSOs) to strengthen business support ecosystems in its six project countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The project has increased the capacities of selected BSOs to deliver value-added services to their members while improving their managerial practices.  

The past two years have been particularly challenging, forcing BSOs to reinvent, adapt, and innovate to new circumstances. SMEs have needed to remain competitive in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, malfunctioning supply chains and geopolitical instabilities. BSOs from the region have had to step up to provide new forms of support to their member companies. This has meant finding new creative, reactive, and engaged ways to help businesses to grow their sales, diversify their markets, and help them seize new opportunities. 

The online seminar gathered policymakers, BSOs representatives and businesses to share experiences and learn from one other to enhance their client services. The event has also provided a venue to explore how BSOs can improve their adaptability, resilience, and promote more inclusive and sustainable business practices.

Ashish Shah, Director of the Division of Country Programmes at ITC, commented that the project has done good work to help BSOs “enhance their capacities to provide better services to SMEs, particularly along the value chains.” Shah believes that “their work has helped chart a path for SMEs to recover and operate in the “new normal.” 

Shah explained how over the first three years of the project, BSOs working with Ready to Trade have helped hundreds of SMEs introduce “a number of quality changes to their business operations, including in production, quality management, packaging, design, marketing, etc.” with many SMEs reporting increased international sales and improved trade flows particularly with the EU. “Overall, the beneficiary SMEs signed business deals with EU and non-EU buyers worth more than 6 million euros” – numbers that the project hopes will be even higher for 2021 and continue to rise for the future.

Shah emphasized that governments, including from the Eastern Partnership region, are now under pressure to find solutions for economic recovery and are looking to exports as a driver of growth, BSOs need to be able to do more with less. Even though, the current project has achieved good results, there is much more to be done to strengthen the performance of BSOs. 

Pauline Döll, Managing Director of CBI, has seen how things have changed over the past three years that CBI has been working with SMEs from the Eastern Partnership countries. “Though times were challenging, we were impressed with the flexibility and creativity of these entrepreneurs. We see that the SMEs from this region have a great potential for entering the EU market, due to their proximity to this market. With the current demand for shorter lead times and nearshoring, the time to seize this opportunity is now. BSOs have an important role to play in this, as facilitators, supporters and guides for these SMEs on their road to export.”

Lawrence Meredith, Director of the Neighbourhood East and Institution Building DG NEAR, European Union, looks forward to further trade opportunities between the European Union and the Eastern Partnership countries. “The region is a vital trade partner to the EU. Combined, the countries in the region are the 10th largest trading partner of the EU. To continue supporting trade capacity in the region, our new Economic and Investment Plan will support SMEs, and improve connectivity – because SMEs are the backbone of the economy, and connectivity is the highway on which runs international trade. We look forward to developing further collaboration with the ITC.”

With the project 'Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade - an EU4Business initiative', the European Union (EU), the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the Centre for the Promotion of Imports (CBI) have teamed up to help SMEs from Eastern Partnership countries to integrate into global value chains and access new markets, with a specific focus on the EU market. 

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