New UNCTAD initiative to power start-ups for impact

21 December 2023

A global learning and scaling tool by Empretec, UNCTAD’s premier entrepreneurship programme, sets out to empower start-ups as greater catalysts for sustainable development.

An engineer tests a robotic arm in a high-tech startup.
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© Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff | An engineer tests a robotic arm in a high-tech startup.

A new UNCTAD initiative, The Square for Global Goals, is connecting start-up founders and CEOs from emerging economies with a global network of peers, trainers, mentors, investors and industry experts.

Inspired by the traditional town square – a gathering point for collaboration and innovation – the initiative leverages Empretec’s network of over 40 business centres worldwide to bolster technology-driven start-up ecosystems and promote entrepreneurship for sustainable development.

“In order to survive in today’s highly competitive and volatile market, businesses, no matter their size, need to have access to technology,” says Arlette Verploegh, who leads UNCTAD’s entrepreneurship development work.

“Start-ups are important as they democratize technologies with a spill-over effect to other businesses,” she adds.

The Square is a key element of UNCTAD’s Empretec 2.0 plan, which includes the introduction of innovative capacity-building activities that harness new technologies to better meet the evolving needs of more entrepreneurs.

Agents of change

Start-ups are agents of change, using innovative business solutions to address unmet needs – from advancing effective energy use to promoting a circular economy.

Some also play a pivotal role in extending financial services to the unbanked, empowering small vendors to reach global markets through e-platforms, and fostering grassroots innovation and competitiveness.

Despite their potential, approximately 90% of the millions of start-ups that emerge globally every year face failure due to challenges such as a lack of funding or an insufficient market fit.

Helping more start-ups succeed and grow is crucial to achieving the UN’s Global Goals for a world of sustained economic growth, decent work for all and reduced inequalities by 2030.

A gateway to new opportunities

The Square consolidates and elevates to the global level start-up support services that Empretec centres have been offering individually and locally.

Carla Goglia, director of the Empretec centre in Argentina, underscores the importance of this expansion.

“All of this [vision] is not possible without a global-scale vision, says Ms Goglia.

“It is fundamental and strategic to have tools like The Square for Global Goals that provide real value to Empretec centres and the start-ups we accompany.”

The Square opens a gateway for start-ups – particularly those from developing countries – to access practical support in key areas such as product development, intellectual property rights, market entry and expansion strategies, and fundraising.

“Entrepreneurship is a tough road,” adds Magellan Fetalino, an entrepreneur from the Philippines. “What gets most entrepreneurs through their journey is the support from their communities. This is what The Square brings to the table.”

Pilot rollout

Following The Square’s inauguration on 18 October at UNCTAD’s 8th World Investment Forum in the United Arab Emirates, its first country launch took place during the 29th annual meeting of Empretec directors in Saudi Arabia on 22 October 2023.

UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan attended the meeting alongside Ahmed Al-Rajhi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Human resources and Social Development; Steve Grove, Governor of the National Development Fund; and Ibrahim Al-Rashed, CEO of the country’s Social Development Bank (SDB).

Empretec centres in Argentina, Colombia, Ethiopia, Mauritius and Uganda are also participating in the initiative’s pilot phase.

Countries that are interested in joining The Square can contact UNCTAD’s Empretec programme for more information.

Launch of The Square
© SDB | UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan (middle) launches The Square with Ahmad bin Sulaiman Al-Rajhi (right), Saudia Arabia’s Minister of human Resources and Social Development, and Steve Grove (left), Governor of the National Development Fund.