U.S. and Iraqi officials say a stronger entrepreneurial community could help bring stability to the war-torn nation.
Amid the dangers of daily car bombings and sniper fire, the government of Iraq and the U.S. Agency for International Development are rallying local entrepreneurs to launch start-up businesses, as the nation now enters its fifth year of conflict.
Earlier this month, the agency announced the opening of the fifth Small Business Development Center in the war-torn country since November.
The centers, which are located in a handful of provinces, offer workshops in business planning, marketing, cash flow, and loan applications, among other entrepreneurial skills, in such hotbed regions as Baghdad and Kirkuk.
On top of basic business training, they also provide useful connections to local microfinance institutions, banks, and other sources of start-up capital, the agency said.
The effort is part of Izdihar -- meaning "prosperity" in Arabic -- a three-year program funded by the USAID to assist the Iraqi government in expanding the country's private sector.
So far, it's managed to attract several hundred participants spread almost evenly between men and women, including local shop owners, restaurateurs, and other Iraqi businesspeople, the agency said.
"Initially, I hesitated to participate," a pastry chef who participated in a recent SBDC workshop, told USAID Izdihar officials. "Now I feel that it has been very helpful and I must change the way I run my business. I have to analyze the market and define my objectives accordingly," she said, adding the next step was to create a trademark for her products, along with a cash-flow statement and an operating budget.
At the end a typical five-day training course, most participants should be able to create a viable business plan and know how to access capital, the agency said.
The hope behind establishing the centers and promoting entrepreneurship is to generate greater regional stability with jobs and economic opportunities, despite the war-zone realities of everyday life, the agency said.
"Don't be intimidated. Start you business now," a State Ministry for Women's Affairs official told a meeting of 60 Iraqi businesswomen at an Izdihar-sponsored conference in February.
Not surprisingly, many entrepreneurs are instead lying low these days.
"As you know, the bad security is the first obstacle," an Iraqi hotel owner said on a recent prime-time television series about local small-business owners on the local Al-Iraqiya network.