Smallholder forest producers are isolated from markets; they receive little or no technical and financial support. Additionally, rights to forest resources are often weak and burdened by over-regulation. Trying to do sustainable business in remote forest areas may appear futile, but this remains the best option for the 1.5 billion forest-dependent people across the globe to enter the cash economy with long term prospects. In the Congo Basin, organisations of forest producers have been challenging barriers to growth by overcoming isolation, sharing knowledge and collectively negotiating market access and favourable policy decisions. The ‘CoNGOs’ project showed how, with support, organised smallholder forestry producers in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could swiftly build successful and sustainable enterprises. We urge programmes such as REDD+ and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) to invest in upscaling and embedding these ‘business incubation’ approaches.