Entrepreneurship in Nicaragua: Yes, we can!

In a country with few opportunities for young people, a small group has opted for self-employment, innovation and the drive to succeed.  They’re only 2% of the population, but they’re launching a small economic revolution.

Elmer Rivas  (Confidencial)

Sara Lila Cordero is the founder of the Co-working Factory. Photo: Carlos Herrera/Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – Investing 350 córdobas (US $11.80) in a medicine chest for de-worming dogs and putting up a sign to advertise the service were Jessica Flores’ first steps.  With no previous experience, she worked up to become the owner of two veterinary clinics that distribute her original line of pet health products.  In this way, she became part of a small group of young entrepreneurs that are transforming the Nicaraguan economy.

Jessica never held a formal company job.  She was a second-year University student majoring in Industrial engineering when economic problems threatened her ability to continue.  That’s when she recalled that she was skilled in caring for her dogs. She began to offer pet de-worming services with the hope of generating enough income to pay her transportation to and from the university.

As time passed, demand kept increasing for the service that Jessica offered.  She graduated in Industrial Engineering and enrolled as a student of veterinary medicine.  Three years later, she had managed to develop a steady demand for her services.  That’s when she crossed the line that separates informal self-employment from a formalized small business.  She called her company “Integral Health Veterinary” and began to generate employment with a line of registered products called “Overshine.” She currently employs 6 veterinary professionals and is planning to widen her brand with an eye towards the export market.

There are hundreds of young people in Nicaragua who have made the leap from self-employment to generating employment opportunities for others.  They represent around 2.2% of the total youth population, according to the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (Funides). Nevertheless, a 2013 study carried out in over 100 countries by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor places Nicaragua and Venezuela last on the list of Latin American countries that foster business ventures.

To Arnulfo Urrutia, expert on the topic of business ventures, it’s contradictory that foreigners who come to Nicaragua perceive and envision innumerable opportunities here, while on the other hand young Nicaraguans aspire to emigrate in search of opportunities they don’t see in their own country.  Currently the unemployment rate for young Nicaraguans is at 20%, and these receive no form of income; 15.5% are self-employed and 61.8% have a formal job, according to FUNIDES.

Arnulfo Urrutia notes that entrepreneurship is sometimes underappreciated or not seen for what it is. In his view, a person who doesn’t have a job has three options: beg, break the law or look for a way to generate income on their own.

Where do “freelancers” fit in?

“Freelance” is an English word used to describe those who work on their own.  This concept, according to sociologist Juan Carlos Gutierrez, is associated with a more specialized type of service and connotes a certain status and level of income. In the end, though, it only means that the person offers services in an independent way, like a plumber who comes to repair the bathroom or laundry sink.

Sara Lila Cordero is the founder of the Co-working Factory, a physical space where entrepreneurs converge to work on their projects and business ideas. To her, being a freelance worker is the first step towards formalizing a business idea.  “A freelancer sells her hours, her time and her knowledge; eventually, there comes a moment when she doesn’t have any more time to sell and has to contract other people,” she says.  She feels that that’s the moment to project the business venture with the greatest rigor.

“You have to prepare your business plan and see how you scale the ladder, how you can add more value to your product, how you can offer other complementary services and better cover the customers’ needs.  That’s the moment, I believe, that you stop being a freelance operation and become a business,” explains Sara Lila Cordero.

José Collado is a self-employed worker.  He agrees that you need passion to become a freelancer.  He’s just completed his first year working as a freelance photographer and audiovisual producer. He admits that he has to live with his mother’s constant refrain: “if you had a steady job, then…”   However, Collado states that he’s always managed to pay his bills on time.  His challenge has been confronting people’s prejudice that because he’s young he couldn’t possibly offer quality service.  He warns: “If you don’t save some money, you’re dead in the water.” His ambition is to start his own company, and he assures us that he’s in the process of doing so.

Entrepreneurship – just a passing fad?

To Sara Lila Cordero, entrepreneurship is the future of our economies; it’s at a high point on a global level and is changing the world’s vision.  Nonetheless, Arnulfo Urrutia fears that it will become a fad and that young Nicaraguans aren’t trained in the skills needed to survive in the business world.

In 2016, now-Vice President Rosario Murillo announced the incorporation of a new subject matter – business ventures – into the public school curriculum of the entire country.  Urrutia considers this a good initiative, but casts doubt on the methodology employed. An entrepreneur is an innovator, a restless thinker with unconventional proposals and his or her own criteria.  Urrutia wonders: “Has the State really decided to form and to tolerate entrepreneurs who may propose new things and be disposed towards innovative actions, even though some of these might go against the political system?”

Sociologist Juan Carlos Gutiérrez assures that in liberal economies the field of entrepreneurship “puts the responsibility on each person to conceive new ventures, rejecting the idea that there’s no employment and replacing it with the notion that you should develop it for yourself.”

Failure and opportunity

For Sara Lila Cordero, every problem, complaint and need is a business opportunity.  She suggests trying the exercise of thinking about the day’s problems and determining how many are a source of complaints and inconformity in order to find opportunities to generate solutions, an exercise that could end by generating an idea for a business.

Quinoa Fit and Food.  Photo: from the company’s FB page.

Tania Uriarte created an online clothing business, but her lack of experience offering products on credit caused her to discover in a very short time that she couldn’t continue.  She looks back on the intent as a learning experience. Her enthusiasm for start-ups – she assures us she inherited this from her mother – led her to found a new business together with her sisters: “Quinoa fit and food”.  The business includes a store and restaurant that offers healthy culinary products.

Uriarte worked in a hydrocarbon company that had no relation at all to the business that she and her sisters wanted to set up.  Nevertheless, she states that the idea came up as a result of experiencing the harm that the traditional Nicaraguan menu was causing people.  As a result, they decided to change dietary habits and noted the need in the market for a business that could offer all the healthy products at one single site.

The project took more than a year to develop. Tania invested her severance money in the business, and she and her sisters assumed the work of legally registering the company, carrying out a market study and create networks of national and international suppliers.

“It was super hard in the beginning.  When you start your own business you think you’re going to make your own schedule; yes, in a way you can, but it’s a 24 hours-a-day schedule.  We get up at 3 am to prepare all the ingredients for a healthy menu,” Tania Uriarte explains.

In the beginning, it was up to Tania and her sisters to do all the work of the business.  After six months they were able to generate some employment. At present, they’ve broadened their services due to their customers’ demands, adding a home delivery service.  In February 2017 they marked 2 years from the day they opened their door, and they’re dreaming about opening new branches.