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UNHCR rewards the entrepreneurial flair of refugees in Ecuador


UNHCR rewards the entrepreneurial flair of refugees in Ecuador

UNHCR awards cash grants to small business projects in Ecuador under an initiative aimed at nurturing the entrepreneurial talents of Colombian refugees.
16 January 2008
Colombian refugee Jorge R gives a presentation on his proposal for a rubber recycling plants.

QUITO, Ecuador, January 16 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has awarded cash grants to 16 small business ventures in Ecuador under an initiative aimed at nurturing the entrepreneurial talents of Colombian refugees and helping them become self-sufficient.

Prizes ranging in value from US$1,300 to US$700 were handed out after presentations in the capital, Quito, on January 10 and in Santo Domingo de Los Colorados the next day by a total of 40 groups of entrepreneurs, each gathering up to three people and most of them including Colombian refugees and Ecuadoreans.

Business ideas showcased included garment making; goods made from recycled material; a variety of restaurants; furniture construction; a small-scale chicken farm; a plumbing agency; handicrafts manufacture; and the fabrication of cleaning goods.

In Quito, Jorge R* won the first prize of US$1,300 after six judges examined his presentation on a proposed rubber recycling plant. The top honours in Santo Domingo went to a trio of Colombian female refugees for their plan to make lamps and other objects out of bamboo and iron.

"This was an ideal opportunity for refugees to show the representatives of financing institutions, micro-credit supporting agencies and other important actors in the financial market, that refugees are prepared and that they can be beneficiaries of their services," said Jorge Caiza from Fundación Ambiente y Sociedad, a partner agency of UNHCR and co-organizer of the project.

He said that most banks and financial institutions in Ecuador currently do not include refugees as beneficiaries, "but we hope that initiatives like these will help to break the myths and prejudices against them."

There are some 45,000 registered Colombian refugees living in Ecuador, and tens of thousands more who never contact UNHCR or the authorities to seek asylum. Finding a job or starting a business are among the main obstacles they face in their quest to integrate. Even though it is legal to hire refugees, many employers still hesitate to take them on.

UNHCR, with FAS and the Fundación Esquel Ecuador, decided to try and help by launching its entrepreneur project in Quito and Santo Domingo last November. The 40 groups accepted for the project were invited to take part in a five-day training course.

"Participants learned the basics of business finances, marketing and how to draft a business plan that would enable them to obtain financing for their business ideas, be it through UNHCR-related sources or through national financing institutions," said Esquel's Karina Sarmiento.

Jorge R will use his cash award to produce rubber parts for vehicles and other machinery. He and the other participants welcomed the initiative.

Marina M*, who arrived in Ecuador 16 months ago with her four children, wanted to get financing for her plan to make hats, bracelets, slippers, necklaces and other artefacts from recycled paper and plastic. "This will enable me to provide for my children," said Marina, who won US$700. She also hopes to pass on her skills to other Colombians and Ecuadoreans.

Chef Gabriel G*, who has been in Ecuador for close to five years, said he wanted to further his dream of opening a small restaurant featuring Colombian delicacies. "It is hard for a Colombian to get a loan or to get support from other sources," he explained.

Conscious of the difficulties that Colombian refugees face in securing finance to realize their entrepreneurial dreams, UNHCR and its partners have also provided all those taking part in the scheme with information on how to access others sources of funding.

UNHCR and the Ecuadorean government estimate that at least 200,000 Colombians have fled to Ecuador over the past decade to escape the armed conflict in their homeland. An average of 800 Colombians a month request asylum, but an overwhelming majority do not approach UNHCR or government authorities and thus remain anonymous, undocumented and unable to access some of their basic rights as refugees.

* Real names have been disguised for protection reasons

By Xavier Orellana in Quito, Ecuador