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Micro-entrepreneurs in Latin America receive boost from the International Trade Center

In an effort to increase opportunities for small businesses—the critical backbone of many of Latin America's and the Caribbean's emerging economies—UTSA's Institute for Economic Development (IED) has expanded its effort to provide expert assistance to foreign governments in that part of the world.

Basing it on the model used in the U.S., the IED's International Trade Center is expanding its outreach services beyond Mexico, into the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The program's aim is to facilitate trade opportunities by setting up assistance networks for micro, small and medium-sized businesses and then link them to each other and to existing networks throughout the Americas via an online trade platform.

In doing so, the program will help Latin American governments promote the growth, innovation and competitiveness of their small business sector and help their business people benefit from international trade.

It will empower residents to generate a stable source of income for themselves, more tax revenue for their government and expanded market and trade opportunities for U.S. businesses, officials said.

"Seldom is there an opportunity to create a win-win-win situation," said Cliff Paredes, director of the International Trade Center, which hosts the federally funded program. "This program accomplishes that."

The expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean is funded by the U.S. Department of State and the Agency for International Development. The U.S. government has committed $1.9 million over the next three years to support the university's efforts in Central America and the Caribbean, Paredes noted.

He said the program is modeled after the Small Business Development Centers' program, which nationally "has been wildly successful. In 35 years, there have been 1,100 centers created across the United States, and for every dollar the government invests in the program, it receives almost two in tax revenue."

One business that benefitted from the Institute for Economic Development's expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean is a cooperative developed in El Salvador. Run by women living in economically depressed areas, it manufactures and markets fruit liquor.

Focusing on one-on-one assistance provided free of charge, the SBDC programs were created by the federal government's Small Business Administration to provide technical and managerial assistance to U.S. small businesses.

"This SBDC model is essentially part of a national network which provides core services for small business startups as well as established businesses," Paredes said. He noted that the program's mission is to promote growth and boost productivity—and revenue—by improving a small business's management.

The university began hosting the South-West Texas Border SBDC Network in the mid-1980s. Through that system, some 10 centers were set up to serve 79 counties in the southern and western parts of Texas to undertake market research tailored specifically to individual clients wanting to start or expand their small businesses.

With the successes on the 1,250-mile Texas-Mexico border, officials decided to expand the effort beyond the U.S.

UTSA's International Trade Center, which began in 1992, is the largest and most successful trade assistance organization in the state. It helps companies join and become competitive in the global marketplace through technical trade consulting, customized market research and training.

The program is flourishing. Beginning with Mexico, the center has assisted in the launch of 108 SBDC programs outside the U.S., including 10 in El Salvador and, most recently, a pair of pilot projects in Colombia.

"The program in Mexico has mushroomed," Paredes said. "Since 2003, when a university in Guadalajara approached us, a network has been created that has assisted or helped create tens of thousands of small businesses that account for hundreds of thousands of jobs, many in rural areas."

Negotiations are ongoing and a memorandum of understanding has been signed with Brazil that officials are hopeful will generate new trade opportunities between that country and the United States.

Earlier this year, UTSA also assisted in launching the Caribbean Small Business Development Center, a project to create small business assistance networks in Saint Lucia, Dominica, Belize, Jamaica and Barbados. The initiative partners the university with the Organization of American States, the U.S. Department of State Mission to the OAS, and the Caribbean Export Development Agency.

Paredes said that one of the more exciting projects is in El Salvador, whose economic infrastructure was ravaged by a more than decade-long civil war. A cooperative, founded and run by women living in rural, economically depressed areas, formed a business to manufacture and market fruit liquor that they bottle and sell.

"The women produce and sell, for $6 apiece, wine in a very nice wine bottle," Paredes said. "They have created a stable source of income where they literally had nothing, not even electricity. They have gone from living at subsistence level with little hope and no opportunity to where we now have a group of empowered women who are succeeding to the point that they are getting their daughters involved in a growing business."

Paredes noted that "these are truly transformational programs, and what UTSA has done in hosting the regional center is something that has not been attempted, much less accomplished, by any other university. The success this program is accomplishing is something that will outlive me and all of us here, and it is something that the university is proud of."

–Guillermo Garcia

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