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Norexport - Standards for the smallest enterprises

by Fabio Tobón on
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It is a belief not only in Colombia, but also in much of Latin America and, indeed, around the world that participation in standardization processes is best suited to large, multinational companies and perhaps some medium and large-sized enterprises. While not entirely correct, this perception is not entirely without basis either. Involvement in standards work by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is relatively limited due to a lack of money, time and qualified expertise.

Participation by microenterprises is even smaller. In Colombia, these companies are generally family-owned businesses, with no more than 10 employees, working primarily in the services sector. This article refers to these small, medium and micro enterprises together known as SMMIEs.

Essential for development

Some 95% of all Colombian companies are SMMIEs. Not only do they represent the majority of companies in Colombia, but they also make a significant impact on the economy, accounting for more than 65% of the country’s total employment. Similar figures are found in other developing countries. One of the main problems is that about half of SMMIEs are informal.

In general, these micro and small companies are not well suited for innovation ; they also face commercialization problems and limited access to markets. These problems are often related to the use (or more accurately the lack of use) of standards. Standards are almost unknown among owners and managers of SMMIEs, and it is difficult to get them to participate in their development.

An important factor affecting the competitiveness of these small and micro enterprises is the failure to use internationally recognized standards in the design of their products and services.

Norexport

With the financial help of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), we initiated the Norexport project to increase the participation of SMMIEs in the standardization process in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Lasting for five years, Norexport began with a study of the three countries’ economies and the need for standards to help SMMIEs increase their market participation and export capabilities.

With the active participation of the national standards bodies, IBNORCA (Bolivia), ICONTEC (Colombia) and INDECOPI (Peru), a programme was developed to meet the needs of manufacturers of indigenous products. Additionally, the programme aimed to assist the organizations in implementing quality management systems. As a complementary activity suggested by the governments involved, we also developed a guide to assist the formalization of SMMIEs.

Project achievements

ICONTEC has worked for some 47 years developing more than 5 700 Colombian national standards with minimal participation from small and micro enterprises. One of the main achievements of the programme with the IDB in the three countries was the active participation of SMMIEs and the production of standards for indigenous products that could be exported to neighbouring countries.

The programme produced 465 standards, 58 of which became regional standards for the Andean Pact countries. Certain special standards were designed for micro and small enterprises, including ICONTEC’s standards NTC 6001, Quality systems (equivalent to ISO 9001, but for SMMIEs) and NTC 5520, Quality of service for small businesses. These two standards will play an important role in improving the management of SMMIEs.

Norexport developed special courses and seminars to help SMMIEs by raising awareness about standards and learning how to work with them. Some 18 700 people attended seminars intended to increase awareness of the significance and importance of standards.

For our institution, as well as for the NSBs of Bolivia and Peru, another big step in standardization was the production of some 111 implementation guides for specific products, helping micro and small entrepreneurs learn how to implement standards in their companies.

Another key issue involved learning how to reach SMMIEs through their existing associations. This led to new relationships with partners who enthusiastically embraced the benefits of standards.

One of the important features of the programme was hiring consultants to help the SMMIEs implement the standards developed in the project. At the end, 177 enterprises had implemented standards and were certified.

We learned from the project that medium, small and micro entrepreneurs who participated helped spread the word about standardization to others in their communities and their respective fields. They also kept their participation in our different committees of interest.

Improving competitiveness

Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises are important sectors in Colombia and other developing countries. We need to reach them with the message about standardization and conformity assessment schemes to help them be more competitive and to survive in today’s aggressive business world.

There is a need for governments to help SMMIEs, first to be legalized in order to reduce the almost 50% of companies that are not in the economic stream of the country, and to be competitive through the use of standards. Only with sound and valuable SMMIEs can these countries reduce unemployment, improve quality of life and be more competitive in the worldwide arena.

Fabio Tobon
Fabio Tobon
Fabio Tobon
Executive Director
Instituto Colombiano de Normas Técnicas y Certificacion (ICONTEC)
Columbia