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LATIN AMERICA: Enterprising Women Reach Beyond Borders

Raúl Pierri

MONTEVIDEO, Jun 17 2005 (IPS) - Elbe “Beba” Luberto led a quiet, contented life in the Uruguayan countryside, with her husband, three children, five grandchildren, and a house that occupied all of her time. But things changed radically when she and a group of other women in the community formed a farming cooperative 18 years ago.

Luberto’s world had been limited to the vast green landscape of the southern department (province) of Canelones. But the new project and the inner strength she has drawn from it, especially after the death of her husband, opened the doors to a whole new life for her and her fellow cooperative members.

These women refused to sit back and do nothing when the sugar beet industry collapsed in the 1990s in the town of Tapia, 80 km from Montevideo, leaving many of the local men out of work.

In the face of this potential disaster, they realised that one solution would be to convert the area’s sugar beet farms to other uses, and generate their own income. They decided to create the Calmañana farming cooperative, where they produce organic herbs and spices and dried fruit.

“Today we women are raising herbs and spices, but we also have the responsibility of taking care of our homes and children. We have to do it to bring another income into the household. It takes a huge sacrifice, but it has helped us grow, out here in the country, far away from everything,” Luberto told IPS.

The Calmañana cooperative, now made up of 25 women, pioneered organic farming in Uruguay. Their products, marketed under the brand name CampoClaro, are sold in local supermarkets and exported to Spain and Italy.


The women now hope to expand their horizons even further thanks to an international project know as WINNER (Women into the New Network for Entrepreneurial Reinforcement).

WINNER, created by Devnet (an international network that provides business information and management assistance services to micro, small and medium size enterprises worldwide), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP), is aimed at helping women entrepreneurs to more effectively and competitively sell their goods and services on the local, national and international market.

Financed by the Italian government aid agency Cooperazione Italiana, the network encompasses enterprises owned by women as well as women’s organisations and foundations, noted the coordinator of the project in Uruguay, María de los Angeles Torres.

Torres was speaking at the launch in Montevideo Thursday of a new phase of expansion of the network, which is opening new offices in a number of Latin American countries.

One of WINNER’s missions is to promote capacity-building by providing women entrepreneurs with training in e-commerce, international trade, fair trade, business management and gender issues, through conventional classes or over the Internet, explained Torres.

The ceremony in Montevideo was also attended by Uruguayan Minister of Industry and Energy Jorge Lepra and the UNDP resident representative in Uruguay, Pablo Mandeville.

WINNER started out as a pilot project in 1999 with operations in Albania, Ecuador, Nepal, the Philippines and Romania, and has gradually grown to encompass more and more countries in practically every region of the world.

There are currently 7,000 enterprises and 4,000 business opportunities registered with the network, as well as close to a dozen Help Desks established around the globe to ensure access to information and communications technologies.

The women entrepreneurs of the WINNER network offer a huge range of goods and services, including garments, gifts, toys, housewares, food and beverages, herbal essential oils and body care products, candles, jewellery, arts and crafts (including indigenous crafts), medicinal herbs, flowers, furniture, energy products, agricultural implements, pharmaceuticals, carpets, ceramics, printing and book publishing, micro-finance, training and consulting, child care and tailoring.

The project’s recently launched “Electronic Market Space” on the Internet showcases the products and services of women trainees, and provides a forum to interact with women entrepreneurs in developed countries.

“Very often, when women start a small business as a solution to the economic problems they face, they feel very isolated. That is why the fundamental premise of this project is the work within the network, the interactive work,” explained Torres.

“We provide them with training and show them that it’s possible to reach out beyond the borders of their own countries, through the Internet, for instance,” she added.

This was exactly what Luberto needed. “We started to work together to do something as women. We wanted to change the way we lived. Rural women are very isolated, like we used to be. We wanted to be able to exchange ideas with other women,” she told IPS.

Speaking at the ceremony in Montevideo on Thursday, Mandeville noted, “For women, the culture of entrepreneurship is built on the basis of clearly identifying specific alternatives to combat unemployment, gender discrimination, poverty and inequality. It is a tool for social and cultural change, because it can inspire many other women.”

Mandeville and the other speakers stressed that initiatives like these contribute to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the U.N. member countries in 2000.

These goals include specific targets like reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, all by the year 2015.

The third of the eight MDGs is to promote gender equality and empower women, and while this is the only one that specifically mentions it, U.N. agencies emphasise that a gender perspective must be incorporated into all of the goals to ensure their fulfilment.

The Calmañana cooperative first came into contact with WINNER through the Women’s Popular Education Network (REPEM), which organises a competition in eight Latin American countries to reward women entrepreneurs.

“Everything that can be done with this inter-institutional link is very important, because this interconnection greatly benefits women entrepreneurs, who are often alone and isolated in remote areas and small towns,” REPEM representative Iliana Pereira Sarti remarked to IPS.

“Running a micro-enterprise demands a great deal of dedication, and women also have to deal with their traditional roles in caring for their homes and families. Because of this, making outside contacts and links is extremely difficult, and this hinders the success of the enterprise,” she added.

Winning an award from REPEM allowed Luberto to travel to Caracas, where she met the other seven winners, from different Latin American countries. She also learned that the realities these women face are not very different from her own situation back in Tapia.

“It was really good to be able to share ideas with women from other countries. I realised that the problems of women in remote areas everywhere in the world are the same as ours,” she said.

 
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