Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

URUGUAY: Incubating Businesses and ICT Job Prospects

Patricia Montero Lafourcade

PAYSANDÚ, Uruguay, Jun 28 2010 (IPS) - “Without this opportunity, I might never have been able to get a higher education,” says Paolo Carabajal, one of the beneficiaries of a digital development plan in this city in northwestern Uruguay.

The Puerto Digital Paysandú Innova project is being implemented by the provincial government of Paysandú, a province in this small South American country of 3.3 million people wedged between Brazil and Argentina.

Created in 2009 by the central government’s Uruguay Integra programme, Paysandú Innova has a budget of 861,400 euros (just over a million dollars) through 2011.

The objective is to expand access to and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Paysandú, a province of 113,000 people, to boost labour market insertion and business development.

The aim is “to build social capital that will provide a foundation for local digital development” in a province hit hard by the closing down of factories and the subsequent loss of jobs, Guillermo Caraballo, one of the project organisers, told IPS.

Since the 1950s, the city of Paysandú, on the Uruguay River across from the Argentine city of Colón, had been experiencing steady growth of manufacturing and agribusiness, with beer breweries, sugar mills, wool fabric and leather producers, cattle and sheep ranching and plantation forestry.

But many companies closed down as a result of the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s and the 2002 financial crisis, driving up unemployment and poverty in formerly prosperous Paysandú, a city of 97,000 people.

Prior to the Plan Ceibal, the programme launched by the left-wing government of Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010) that gave a free laptop to every primary schoolchild and teacher in the country, only 10 percent of families in Paysandú had internet connection at home, compared to 23 percent in the capital, Montevideo.

The limited home connectivity hindered training in computers, and one of the key achievements of the Puerto Digital Paysandú Innova project was the creation of a Digital Development Centre, which provides the people of Paysandú with a chance to learn how to use computers.

Caraballo said the centre benefits mainly women and young people, who gain access to national digital development programmes for training in ICTs, one of the fastest-growing sectors in Uruguay.

Some 180 young people between the ages of 18 and 30, mainly women, who have completed the first three years of secondary school, are involved in Paysandú Innova, taking courses in computer technology in order to find a job in areas with a high demand for skilled employees.

Some 90 directors and managers of the leading public and private institutions and business associations in the province will also receive computer training.

In the meantime, a course on “free software language” is being developed.

Carabajal, 27, has been working with computers since he was 21. He had always dreamed of getting a tertiary degree. But higher education is only available in the capital, which means he would have had to move to Montevideo to study.

The arrival of the Puerto Digital Paysandú Innova project, and the creation of a tertiary-level course for computer technicians, offered by the project in conjunction with the Montevideo-based Universidad del Trabajo vocational institute, made his dream come true.

He is now in the second year of the course, and when he’s finished he will have the training needed to work in any large company, at the local, national or international level.

“We’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time,” Carabajal told IPS. “Here in the interior we didn’t have opportunities like this. We either had to go to Montevideo or Concepción del Uruguay (in Argentina). Not only do we not have to worry about extra costs now, but we don’t have to be uprooted from our homes, families and friends.

“This course opens up a range of possibilities for us. I have really good employment prospects, since this is an innovative profession where demand for skilled workers is high. After we graduate, a lot of doors will be opened for us,” he added.

Another of the Puerto Digital Paysandú Innova project’s achievements is the “Germinal” business incubator, designed to support start-up companies.

The incubator, which serves northern Uruguay as a whole, offers legal advice, training workshops, access to sources of financing, business contacts, infrastructure, internet connection and telephone lines.

A selection committee, made up of members of the Exporters Association and other bodies, chooses the most innovative projects.

At this time there are six companies in different stages in the incubator, Alejandra González, the head of “Germinal”, told IPS.

The three businesses in the “pre-incubation” phase are receiving support from a Business Plan team at the Universidad del Trabajo vocational institute.

The other three projects are farther along. Two of them will create software for the international market, from Paysandú, and one will make cosmetic products based on the thermal waters found 80 km east of the city.

The common denominator of all of the projects is that they are innovative. The details are still secret, because until the “incubation” phase is finished their products will not be patented.

“The market in this country of just 3.3 million people is very small, which means that once they have gone through the two-year incubation period, they will start marketing abroad,” González said.

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