A nation with a growing economy at the heart of South America is struggling to translate economic progress into development for its mostly young population. Ahead of the GEC2 in Croatia next month which will examine how tech entrepreneurs can globally accelerate improvements in education, I look at the factors holding back Paraguay’s young population as agents of prosperity and sustained economic growth.
Paraguay’s attractions for foreign investors setting up shop in the country are clear: abundant and cheap energy, a galloping economy (14.5 percent growth rate in 2013), a productive agricultural land, abundant water sources, one of the most favorable tax schemes in the region, a young population (84 percent of the country is under 60 years old), a stable currency, and a market thirsty for innovative solutions that will plug them into global 21st century technology. With a government eager to welcome foreign capital, technology and job-creating businesses, foreign companies seem to feel sheltered from the corruption that typically plagues the regulatory environment.
Leaders of scaling businesses however complain of a lack of talented middle managers, pointing to an inadequate education system that graduates few with the skills needed to help businesses grow, let alone start new high-potential businesses. Along with a deficient infrastructure that erodes the competitiveness of farmers and other producers as they move their goods for distribution, this weakness in education represents the most significant shackle since this nation overthrew a dictatorship in 1989. Not surprisingly, poor quality of education and access has translated into profound inequalities, poverty, social unrest and lately, violence. The poor access and quality of the public education system is reflected in dropout rates: only three out every ten students enrolled in the first grade will graduate from high school.
Paraguay Educa, a civil sector organization which has brought the One Laptop per Child program to the country, has made the Caacupe town a live experiment for 21st century digital education. Researchers recently highlighted that children know more than their teachers when it comes to digital literacy.
There has been a wave of private university endeavors trying to address this, but with few exceptions aside, they have only diluted the value of diplomas. There is not much tertiary education institutions can do without kids getting a solid start at the primary and secondary level.
A new wave of education entrepreneurs is now leveraging technology to build a new foundation for the knowledge economy, equipped with digital literacy and access to the world’s best resources. The Centro Tecnologico Serrania, for example, is a social endeavor offering digital inclusion programs for students, parents and teachers outside the capital city. Young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs have joined the cause, such as Martin Abente, who believes in the poverty-lifting and empowering potential of open source development. Abente has been implementing the Sugar Learning Platform in Paraguay, working with contributors of all types - teachers, writers, coders, designers, and more, to democratize digital education. Last year, he was selected as a mentor at the Google Summer of Code.
On the policy front, despite institutional political weaknesses, democracy still rules the land. In their quest for fresh leadership, people chose a businessman in their last elections, hoping that, despite his lack of political experience, he would use the managerial skills that helped him grow his family’s businesses to elevate rule of law.
A year after the administration of President Horacio Cartes took charge, it is still hard to tell whether the environment for new businesses has improved. Cartes has often said that if a procedure can be done within three hours, it should not take three days. The hope remains that his team of technocrats would help him instill that common sense, along with transparency, across the large government machinery, a political tool previous governments used to generate “jobs”. It is still common to find out that many government salaries paid for political patronage without actual work performed. Clearly, young entrepreneur role models are in need to instill a new mindset that empowers young people to be the leaders of their own future
Fundacion Paraguaya has been key in filling some of the entrepreneurial education gaps in the country through Junior Achievement programs. Now, it is taking that message to various government agencies as they see value in recruiting government support for efforts like Global Entrepreneurship Week. Joining forces with INCUNA, the business incubator at the National University of Asuncion, and INCUPAR, the organization aggregating the voices of other incubators and technology parks, Fundacion Paraguaya and other members of the Network of Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Promotion (RIEPP) have now proposed that Congress create a National Entrepreneur Day every November to inspire more citizens to explore their potential as entrepreneurs and align the country with the entrepreneurship movement globally.
A critical mass is beginning to form. Beyond the incubators mentioned above, TEDx-style “Gramo” talks have been overflowing auditoriums in the capital city, where innovative thinkers from various sectors tell the story of their entrepreneurial path. Often, the speakers have been abroad and have returned to pursue new local opportunities. The organizers, who formed the Koga Social Business Lab, believe that entrepreneurs can yield powerful social returns. The challenge is to expand this mindset to young people who do not belong to the traditional circles of family businesses.
A number of creative and tech-savvy young people are starting to shape the entrepreneurial landscape, offering role models, such as Rodrigo Weiberlen of journalism innovation Ejempla.com. Weiberlein also co-founded and scaled the internationally acclaimed ONIRIA publicity consulting firm and has revolutionized the publicity industry in Paraguay. He has become an ambassador for the “power of ideas”, inspiring more to take the entrepreneurial plunge. Weiberlein’s international success has encouraged the two Paraguayan winners of the most recent Wayra accelerator round in Mexico, for example.
Among the feats of the Cartes governments is passing a law that allows for public-private partnerships in infrastructure. Such a law has been passed successfully in other countries, helping improve the quality of services, and recruiting private investment and managerial efficiency in public goods projects.
As Paraguay’s leadership reflect back on their first year and map out the next four, gatherings of entrepreneurship education experts like the GEC2 in Croatia and an emerging volume of existing literature as to what really works, will be very important. However, the Cartes government would also be wise to look to its own young entrepreneurs at home, both for new learning models relevant for their country as well as how to close gaps in the ecosystem and open opportunities for nascent founders.
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