Using the Internet to Amplify and Support Microenterprise Development

Amy Borgstrom
June Holley
Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, USA


The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) is embarking on a national project to enable community-based microenterprise and small business assistance programs to dramatically increase their effectiveness through the use of the Internet. This project consists of three complementary strategies. It uses the Internet to link microfirms with high-value markets, to create networks of firms and service providers within communities, and to enable community-based microenterprise programs around the country to work collaboratively and learn from one another's experience.

The project is based on the assumption that the most lucrative markets require a level of sophistication that can best be achieved if business assistance programs and firms in low-income communities both locally and throughout the country find new ways to work together. It is currently supported by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.

A key characteristic of specialty or high-value markets is that they tend to require ongoing, rapid development of new products or services in response to changing needs and trends. Thus, one of the most important services an assistance program can offer entrepreneurs is access to a continual stream of market intelligence information about trends and market locations that can be used to help firms find customers and develop new products. ACEnet is developing an Internet Web site that links firms to key databases and other sources of information targeted on their particular sector. For example, a page designed to meet the needs of specialty food producers might link to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study on freeze-drying technologies for small firms or to a survey of specialty retail stores.

This same Web site is providing a locus for creating linkages between firms and service providers on the local level. Three groups will be enabled to access opportunities presented by the Internet: small manufacturing firms participating in flexible manufacturing networks, people moving from welfare to work, and community-based support organizations. Working with these three groups, ACEnet is developing opportunities for interaction through the Internet designed to promote concrete, collaborative economic development activities in the region.

And finally, this site will be a vehicle for national networking efforts. ACEnet is convening a group of microenterprise practitioners from around the country that are focusing on specific high-value sectors to experiment with the use of Web-based conferencing as a vehicle for developing and carrying out joint projects. This group will identify one or more concrete projects that subgroups are interested in working on together. As the network participants become more skilled at working with each other in the fast-changing Internet environment, more complex needs or opportunities can be identified.