​Mariagrazia Biancospino, ​the secretary-general of the Italian-South African Chamber of Trade and Industries, acts essentially as a “matchmaker”, connecting importers and exporters in Italy and South Africa.Photo: Supplied​

CAPE TOWN - Mariagrazia Biancospino has her work cut out for her. As the secretary-general of the Italian-South African Chamber of Trade and Industries she acts essentially as a “matchmaker”, connecting importers and exporters in Italy and South Africa.

For the mercantile lawyer, who is in her 12th year at the chamber, it’s all about networking and arranging mutually beneficial partnerships.

Biancospino, who arrived in the country on an exchange programme with a legal firm and became immersed in the Italian business community, says the chamber functions essentially as a “dating agency for entrepreneurs”, working closely with the Italian Embassy, the two Italian consulates in Joburg and Cape Town and the Italian Trade Commission.

“We scout potential importers and distributors in South Africa for Italian companies,” she explains. “For example, in February we hosted a wine tasting that showcased 13 Italian winemakers. We facilitate start-ups for Italian companies that want to establish a presence in South Africa.”

The chamber, which boasts a diverse membership ranging from banks and engineering firms to food manufacturers and airlines, hosts trade delegations to and from Italy, business breakfasts and events, and other networking opportunities. It has more than 200 members in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Italian contribution to South Africa is not well known, Biancospino explains, despite the country's immigration history that goes back as far as the arrival of the Huguenots.

“During the Struggle, Italy played a significant role internationally to contribute to the formation of a democratic country.

"A very significant area of contribution by Italians to South Africa is within the business sector. Many immigrants reproduced the Italian business model in South Africa - that of a small to medium family-run business.

"What is more, many professionals including doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants and academics have historically contributed to the South African economy.”

Italian families, such as Bottega, Dalla Cia and Bertrand have been central to wine and olive production in the Western Cape, while our construction and engineering sectors have thrived due to the input of Italian entrepreneurs and businesses, including Stefanutti Stocks, Italtile, Liviero, Giuricich, Scribante, Efficient Engineering and others.

Established in 1983, the Italian-South African Chamber was initially formed to support Italian chief executives in South Africa. The first elected chairperson was Paolo Tosi, the chief executive of printing company Olivetti Africa. The chamber was central to initiating the “Made in Italy” brand in this country, by showcasing Italian products at the Rand Easter Show that year.

By 1999, membership had flourished, which spurred the chamber to hold its first annual Business Excellence Awards to celebrate outstanding achievements within the Italian-South African business community.

Biancospino joined in 2007 - a year later, Marble Classic chief executive Nicolina Di Santolo became the chamber's first woman chairperson. The current chairperson is Italtile chief executive Sergio Galli.

“My key objective remains the promotion of activities of interest for the members and the development of business relationships with our Italian counterparts,” she says.

Now in its 35th year, the chamber is no longer an Italian “boys' club”. Biancospino says being Italian is not a requirement as membership is open to any business and entrepreneur looking for opportunities in Italy and South Africa. Membership can be lucrative because of an abundance of opportunities and the strengthening of trade between the two countries. Last year, $2.2billion (R26.2bn) worth of goods were imported to South Africa, compared to $1.8bn the previous year. South African exports were valued at $1bn.

“The majority of Italian goods coming to South Africa are the country’s world-renowned machinery, oil-related products, vehicles and pharmaceuticals. From South Africa to Italy it is mostly raw materials and agri-products such as wine, sunflower oil and sugar. Many potential areas of synergy between Italy and South Africa are yet to be discovered.”

The Italian-South African Chamber works closely with its counterparts in India, China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, UAE and Qatar through joint ventures, which allows Italian technology and expertise to partner with local knowledge and production techniques around the world.

This year has some exciting projects in store for the chamber, she explains.

“One of the things we are most looking forward to is the Italy-South Africa Summit organised by the European house of Ambrosetti (in Joburg on October 23-24).

“The chamber is a partner with Ambrosetti at this event, which attracts several hundred people each year. We are also working with a prominent auditing firm to create a directory for Italian investment in South Africa which will be launched later this year."