by Merlin Hernandez


If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone sing the praises of some great widget and how much money there is to be made if the creator should go into business. Without trying to diminish the value of innovation, by itself it may not provide the most solid foundation required to make a success of a business venture. There is an old adage that a superior product has a good chance of doing well in the marketplace but a mediocre product with a well-defined strategy will perform far better. Many brilliant and talented innovators never make it in business because they do not have a full appreciation of the business dimension to their work. This is to emphasize that regardless of how good the product is, it is the application of sound business strategies that will bring success.

In developing the business idea, it is necessary to first determine the core benefit to be provided to the consumer. This would come from market research that identifies a basic need. Too often in the small business sector, product development is a feature of the notion that a good product will create its own market – the idea of selling what is made rather that making what the market needs. But businesses need to be market-driven with customer satisfaction as the primary focus. A viable product is a result of information on marketplace trends, customer needs, wants and preferences, customer consumption patterns, and the activities of competitors so that the right marketing mix can be developed. The product idea will therefore be defined by the targeted market segment and the client profile.

To screen and select the idea that has the greatest potential for market success, the idea is also measured against resource capabilities to be applied to production and marketing. The ability to successfully develop, produce, and market a product depends on having the right mix of available resources. The business must be sufficiently capitalized to support key research, the right personnel, the most suitable raw materials, manufacturing equipment, processes, and marketing strategies that would bring desired returns. These elements need to operate in a delicate balance – I have seen a great marketing strategy realize sales volumes that could not be fulfilled on time because of inadequate production capacity leading to cancelled orders and low profitability. The other side of the coin is strong manufacturing capabilities and a weak marketing budget which can result in poor sales, high inventory, lower prices, and financial loss.

The process of developing the full product concept will be more meaningful through consultations with potential customers to better understand the benefits they value and the necessary product attributes for market viability. This kind of partnership culture opens up a first level commitment to the idea from the customer. It is also useful at this stage to engage professional advisors, potential partners, suppliers and other stakeholders in the process for feasibility and logistic input. The concept development phase is probably the most important exercise as it introduces the product idea to the potential market as well as explores the company’s ability to make the product available. Any negatives emerging from this phase would be a clear indication that the product does not have the potential for success.

Before any commitment to the idea, an analysis of the costs of bringing the product to market should be measured against the potential contribution to sales and profits. Furthermore, an in-depth market analysis should explore the competitive environment and other environmental factors – like the climate of innovation which might put an investment into the new product at risk. For existing businesses, possible new marketing strategies should be integrated into existing marketing objectives using channels and tactics that have demonstrated success. The rationale is to diffuse the cost and structure of marketing the new product throughout the marketing system in order to achieve cost efficiencies. R&D can now be charged with developing a prototype based on product attributes identified in the market intelligence and resource capabilities, with special attention to consumer contributions obtained at the concept development phase.

The market testing phase is aimed at collating customer responses to prototypes. It provides information for product modification and refinement, as well as full development of the marketing plan. Market testing could also determine whether the product should be abandoned due to poor consumer interest. Once results of testing are favorable, the business idea has been effectively developed and the product may now be ready for commercialization and the introduction to the market. Commercialization is the action plan for introducing the product to the market. It includes timing, pricing, distribution, budget, advertising and promotion, launch impact, and adoption by the target market, along with strategies to incrementally increase sales volumes and build the brand. The process is meant to leverage the effects of marketing strategies on ROI and optimize market spend in relation to competition.

Market success does not begin with a product but with the way it delivers value and benefit to the end user. Many businesses are incorporating the customer as a partner to their product development initiatives as a way of building strong external partnerships, demonstrating the value of the customer to the organization, ensuring delivery efficiencies based on articulated customer need, while availing themselves of a ready market down the line. In developing the product idea it is also important to differentiate the product by finding new ways to extend product value beyond expectations through the addition of new layers of customer satisfaction to the development matrix.

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Focusing the Business





By Roger Cohen

Re-printed from The International Herald Tribune

Monday July 8, 2013 

[I was so moved by this piece that I had to share it – Merlin Hernandez] 


“The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him.”


LONDON — The South African living for my family was easy. The staff changed the nappies. The houseboys brought the braziers to the right glow for the braai. Two gardeners were employed, one for the roses and one for the rest. When dinner ended the bell was rung, either by hand or by pressure of the foot on a buzzer beneath the carpet. A black servant would appear dressed in a white outfit.

My grandfather, Laurie Adler, and his friends donned their whites for Sunday lunch, preceded by a cocktail of “gin and two” (one third gin, one third Cinzano Bianco, one third Cinzano Rosso and “and full to the brim with ice”), before ambling off to play bowls.

At picnics on Table Mountain, a beret on his head, socks pulled up almost to his knee, Laurie would plunge a knife into the pale green watermelons, making a series of incisions before, with a flourish, allowing the succulent fruit to fall open in oozing red bloom. We feasted and left a trail of eggshells and bitten-out watermelon rind.

And on Robben Island, without watch or clock, Mandela maps time on the wall of his cell.

A particularity of the apartheid system was that blacks were kept at a distance except in the most intimate of settings, the home. They cooked and cleared away; they washed and darned and dusted; and they coddled white children. After the Shabbat meal on Friday night guests might leave some small token of appreciation on the kitchen counter (“Shame, I don’t have much change”) or slip a few rand into a calloused black hand.

Elsewhere lay the Africa of the Africans — the natives as they were often called — the distant townships of dust and dirt where water was drawn from a communal spigot, and homes consisted of a single room, and clothes were patched together from scraps of passed-down fabric, and the alleys were full of the stale stench of urine. I could smell the hardship in the sweat of the houseboys and see it in the yellowish tint of their eyes.

And on Robben Island, Mandela records on a South African Tourism desk calendar the humiliations inflicted by white prison warders.

A relative told me his first political memory from the early 1950s was of a great tide of black walkers streaming from Alexandra township — “like the Jews leaving Egypt,” he said, but of course no liberation awaited. The blacks were protesting against a one-penny hike in bus fares. Moenie worry nie, Laurie always insisted — don’t worry. He had been born in South Africa in 1899, my grandmother Flossie in 1900. They should know.

South Africa was as good a place as any for a Jew to live in the 20th century. A friend of the family let slip a sentiment widely felt but seldom articulated: “Thank God for the blacks. If not for them it would be us.” Jews on the whole kept their heads down; better just to keep stumm. Flossie voted for Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party and then prayed the National Party remained in power. She was not alone in such genteel hypocrisy.

And on Robben Island, Mandela cultivates not hatred — that would be too easy for the whites — but the power of patience and perseverance.

The blacks were a form of protection. If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you do not have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches of the Europe they had fled, the knowledge of the 69 blacks cut down at Sharpeville in 1960 was discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. Most, with conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans), looked away.

Why think of a black man in a cell for his just beliefs when you could gaze at the canopy of purple-blue jacaranda blossom over the avenues of Johannesburg? Everything seemed untroubled, unless you caught a glimpse of ragged black men being herded into police vans. Then a cousin might say, “I suppose they don’t have their passes. Enjoy the swimming pools, next year they will be red with blood.”

And on Robben Island, Mandela learns that not even a life sentence can condemn a man to abandon the mastery of his soul.

I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.

He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.

The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.

by Merlin Hernandez

Many entrepreneurs looking to start a small business look to the service industry because of the potential to translate a knowledge base into income without a large capital outlay as well as the ease of need identification. Services, however, pose unique challenges to marketers because the dominant factor is people not product and each interaction with the service is important to maintaining delivery levels and building the brand. Customer expectations regarding managing and maintaining service quality are critical defining factors. But regardless of the size of the business, the role of employee satisfaction in the quality of delivery can make or break the business if not given serious attention.

Employees are the face of a business and charged with the responsibility for a high level of customer satisfaction. They need to have strong buy-in to the organization to preserve its interests in service quality in order to maintain cost efficiencies and perhaps a pricing edge. High job satisfaction equates with positive representation of company interests. Tying business goals into the employee’s personal interests maintains a high level of employee engagement for sustained commitment. An employee who believes in the organization and its products builds trust and fosters customer loyalty.

Marketing a service product is challenged by the unique characteristics of services which are influenced by four basic considerations to the service marketing mix. It is important for marketers to have a grasp of these factors and see them as advantages rather than stumbling blocks. Services are intangible i.e. there is no physical deliverable that changes hands. Pricing is difficult due to the elusive nature of component costing and marketers often determine prices by comparison with other providers in a similar field. This inherently juxtaposes competitors, and throws the quality of the service more sharply into focus making price a key point of differentiation. But price is often of secondary importance to the quality of the personal interaction consumers have with service personnel.

The service product only exists within the provider/consumer relationship – it has no shelf life and cannot be inventoried. This makes the customer relationship the sole engine that drives the business. The service provider is therefore inseparable from the service itself but so is the consumer. For marketing, the fact that producer, product, and client are so closely intertwined would be an advantage to building product quality according to client need, making customer satisfaction an integral component of the service. Employees form part of the service product e.g. great food poorly served is a bad dining experience – a law office with an unprofessional assistant influences expectations about the quality of advocacy – the pest control service person who does not observe the basic courtesies ensures that his company does not receive a call back.

Each client brings a new dynamic with different expectations and satisfaction index that will not necessarily transfer to another client which makes the service heterogeneous. There may be needs that fit into the basic service offering but with some preference differentials. Furthermore each experience of the service will be different. Understanding this dimension of heterogeneity brings the opportunity to make the service unique each time, add to the quality of delivery, and appeal to a wider customer base.

Marketers need close monitoring of individual customer interests in the planning phase to maintain a high level of delivery and remain competitive. Standardization in services marketing would be necessary to establish rigorous procedures for some measure of uniformity to the customer experience and brand identity. But this needs to be done with the recognition that the heterogeneity factor would demand constant adjustments and varying of methods to accommodate changing customer tastes, customer preferences, and new trends. Employees are better able to provide the level of feedback necessary for sustained customer satisfaction.

Like many tangible goods, services can also be described as perishable since each design and delivery is unique unto itself, finite, and cannot be sold again. This provides the opportunity to market a “new” product each time the service is offered whether a CPA provides annual financial statements, a nutritionist creates a new diet plan or a consultant does the feasibility for a new venture. Customer need will define the service, with past experience feeding into innovation, modification and improvement. It does mean that the service provider often has one chance to get it right.

Employees tend to have heightened knowledge of customer preferences and are central to managing service quality and customer satisfaction. Employee engagement can be facilitated through a combination of base pay and long-term incentives which enhances an employee’s equity and is a measure of the level of ownership and satisfaction an employee experiences in a job. Training and tangible benefits and rewards like bonuses tied to the attainment of strategic objectives, skills enhancement, mentoring, and opportunities for promotions and increasing autonomy go a long way to keep morale and staff commitment high. With reduced turnover, there would be long term benefits like deeper customer relationships and a stronger feedback loop for greater service refinement and targeted delivery.

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 Merlin Hernandez is an entrepreneurial development and management consultant who operates mainly in the small and medium enterprise sector. For more information on this topic, please send enquiries to

by Merlin Hernandez

Strategic objectives clearly enunciate what an organization wants to accomplish within a given time-frame, usually the financial year. The strategic plan will lay out the pathways and processes to achievement. Defining the organizational culture as an important element in developing ways to direct the business strategy is often overlooked. The beliefs, attitudes, and values that permeate the organization will ultimately determine the quality of relationships among employees and between employees and outside stakeholders. Good employee morale, exemplary customer service, and supplier support will flow from shared beliefs and values among leaders, managers and employees about the importance of collaborative relationships to business goals.

Workforce size, skills mix, and job functions are key areas of planning, and would include standards for productive efficiencies, performance standards, and benchmarks. Selection for an optimal match of skills to organizational needs may be achieved through any combination of cognitive tests, work samples, situational tests, personality inventories, background checks, or follow up interviews. Performance is evaluated for impact on stated objectives in terms of results, cost-efficiency, value to the strategic direction, and best practices in the industry.

In many instances, however, staffing is a feature of matching skills and experience to job requirements with little emphasis on strategic fit to the corporate vision as articulated by the culture of the organization. But employee recruiting and selection are critical components to strategic management as businesses need to identify and hire the people most qualified to execute their plans. An appropriate selection method is where there is an optimal match of skills to the job but just as important is a personality and character fit. An employee who is a good cultural fit works well within existing organizational values.

The organizational culture refers to the general consensus about goals, and pathways to achieve them within the context of the environment in which the organization exists. It may be seen as an amalgam of differentiated perspectives with the corporate will to establish harmony. But organizations are living, breathing organisms, more especially so in an era of global interactions. Ambiguity is therefore inevitable and pervasive, change is constant, and consistencies are problematic. Underlying this is the understanding that relevance is often subject to interpretation and ambiguity. In order to attain clarity of purpose, the norming factor might be to channel ambiguity outside of the core values of the organization through consensus i.e. to develop a consensual matrix of attitudes and beliefs that serve as a common motivational base for members.

In a culture of diversity, this has strong significance as each perspective tends to be well-defined and finding consensus becomes a real challenge. Moreover, consensus tends to be a feature of shifting paradigms. This might be somewhat mitigated by a structural overlay that imposes some kind of stability. The organizational structure is thus an outgrowth of the organizational culture and is really the hybridization of perspectives harnessed for operational efficiency. The structure is then the engine through which work is coordinated by methods that include lines of authority, span of control, areas of autonomy, specialization, work teams, cross-functional channels etc.

Furthermore, there needs to be the recognition that organizational culture is a fluid concept and that structural change should always remain a strategic option. Globalization has forced many companies to recognize that what goes on in Tokyo, Dubai, Beijing, or London affects currency exchanges, the cost of raw materials and energy, competitiveness, and profit potential. They are thus compelled to do business with one eye on global changes while utilizing different skill sets in order to maintain competitive edge. Holding on to old ways of doing business, or to an organizational culture that is not responsive to these changes would prove detrimental.

Business strategies for goal achievement will then need to emanate from both pragmatic and contextual considerations and all the elements and processes to successful goal attainment must be aligned. Staffing decisions is one of the key elements to strategic alignment.  The people who will execute strategic plans must fall within the person-environment fit to the corporate vision in order to maintain coherence with its structures.

A major issue is that the recruiting function is not seen as strategic and HR is not typically invited to contribute to business strategy. But recruiting the right candidate to meet strategic goals needs a keen understanding of corporate goals and priorities. A people strategy is an integral part of overall strategy. It synthesizes corporate values with core competencies to create a performance culture where financial, operational and people assets converge to achieve corporate goals. A stronger argument for staffing fit would be that staffing should be the bridge that spans culture, structure and strategy.

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Merlin Hernandez is an entrepreneurial development and management consultant who operates mainly in the small and medium enterprise sector. For more information on this topic, please send enquiries to

by Merlin Hernandez

The question of whether a company can legally prohibit employees from attempts to organize the workplace comes up quite often in small businesses. Labor laws fall under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and grant employees the right to form, join and assist labor organization and to engage in efforts to promote these rights. It is a body of law that is meant to equalize the relationships and bargaining power between employers and employees. While employers may not prohibit employees from attempts to unionize, they do have the power to control union solicitation by minimizing opportunities for professional organizers to operate in the workplace or by having a written and posted no-solicitation/no-distribution rule that governs the disbursement of any type of literature on the premises as part of an overall risk management strategy at the outset of operations.

But the question of employee organizers poses a different challenge. Employees must be permitted to talk about a union on breaks, lunches, and personal time. But employers have the right, under the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, to engage in free-speech against labor unions as part of a campaign prior to a union election. Employers are also allowed to contest union elections for which a simple majority (50%) will create a winner. They must, however, be careful not to engage in Unfair Labor Practices for which there are serious penalties, if found guilty. These practices include:
– Threats against union activity
– Asking about union activities
– Offering incentives not to unionize
– Spying on union activity.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), there are certain categories of employees who may not unionize – executives, security guards, and other classes of exempt employees who are usually salaried workers, professional staff, outside sales personnel, or employees earning more than $100,000.00 annually. It may not be possible to prevent the local union from speaking to any or all employees at a company but an employer may advise employees of the regulations, and direct a union organizer to the relevant statute that would preclude the union from approaching those categories of employees.

Having only one union with which to bargain may have the advantage of a single collective bargaining unit that affords ease of management of the company’s industrial relations. But there can be some advantages to having more than one. Under the NLRA, a bargaining unit can comprise the employees of a single company or a group within a single company. This means that there may be several groups within a company, fitting into several bargaining units that may be represented by different unions e.g. maintenance workers and clerical workers may elect to have different representation based on their different characteristics and needs. In this scenario, should one bargaining unit go out on strike, operations may not be as adversely affected as in the case of a single union. The company may very well be able to re-deploy the workers on hand efficiently enough not to be compelled to hire ‘scabs’ (replacement workers).

by Merlin Hernandez

A budget is a financial plan that is based on an estimate of future income and expenses. Developing a budget begins with an estimate of future sales (sales forecast) in order to calculate the expenditure necessary to achieve those revenues. Sales forecasts predict sales volume for a particular period by comparing estimated future sales with the actual sales of the prior period. This would make the forecasted ending balance sheet for the prior budget period essential to developing the sales forecast as it brings important insights about trends and seasonal fluctuations, and can be a reminder of unexpected environmental determinants like rising unemployment levels, changing interest rates or credit market challenges.

The sales budget clarifies required product volumes, defines cost driver budgets, and helps to determine the best price at which to sell. The sales forecast responds to some basic questions:
– The number of different products the company plans to sell.
– The number of units of each product to be sold.
– The selling price of each unit.
The Sales Budget uses this information to determine the level of production required and at what intervals, the costs of bringing the product to market, and expected revenues for the period. Costs are broken down into an Operating Budget for variable costs and selling/administrative expenses, and a Financial Budget for fixed and capital costs as well as cash requirements. The sales forecast, therefore, drives the master budget in that it gives form to the sales budget and other cost driver budgets that lead to the development of operating and financial budgets.

Continuous Budget
The continuous budget is a valuable tool for better planning and performance measurements by factoring the changes that could affect sales projections in order to take preemptive or corrective action. A continuous budget strategizes by drawing from past performance within the period to adjust strategies for the future. But it applies the most recent information like economic factors, new technological applications or market changes for a new starting point to forecasting revenues. For example, a new competitive product on the market could determine a need to increase the advertising budget, offer new volume discounts to customers, or increase sales efforts, which would alter budget allocations and/ or revenue expectations, all of which are designed to mitigate possible revenue contraction.

Continuous budgeting does however, present moving targets that dictate a constant need to re-strategize ways to achieve them. But failure to accommodate environmental changes or changes in resource availability will mean that the budget remains in a vacuum and devoid of the up-to-date and realistic input that would inform corrective action and budgetary adjustment.

Control Management
A company that manufactures and sells a product may experience fluctuations in sales from month to month. A static budget would aggregate monthly production needs based on previous sales data and allocate a monthly production budget to reflect one twelfth of the overall allocation. This does not take into consideration months of high or low activity and would present a distorted view of production efficiencies or shortfalls – high-activity months would reflect cost overruns, and months of reduced activity would mean lower variable costs and not the ability of
the business to generate cost savings.

A flexible budget would link the observed revenue patterns of the previous budget to anticipated expenses for the new period and factor cost variances that reflect variable cost differentials for each month or quarter. Flexible budgeting is a useful feature in contingency planning for uneven levels of activity and is best used in the variable expense sub-section of the Operating Budget. It is the kind of budgeting that adjusts for changes in the volume of activity and is driven by expected cost behavior. It would be of greater benefit to a company than a traditional single value static budget which assumes a world of certainty and only factors one budgeted amount regardless of the volume of activity. A flexible budget is a more comprehensive accounting of the static budget’s cost variance and should be used in conjunction with continuous budgeting for enhanced tracking of variances and more effective control management.

There is need for greater flexibility in contemporary business environments which are characterized by the market volatility and technological changes that would favor continuous budgeting. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable but any type of business, small or large, can benefit from flexible budgets once there is a profit imperative with the need for cost controls. This would include companies engaged in manufacturing, service delivery or even non-profits that would still need to show their ability to generate a small profit as a mark of efficient management in order to maintain their funding.

But flexible budgeting can present control challenges as we target specific financial objectives that do not necessarily change because of threats in the environment. It comes down to the management of systems and processes for contingencies and short falls. The flexible budget is the practice of management by exception i.e. giving more attention to areas of significant variances for more efficient resource allocation and strategic implementation to achieve financial goals. The combination of continuous and flexible budgeting enables more intense contingency planning and adaptability as well as short term performance variance analysis that feed into better cost controls and profit projections.

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Merlin Hernandez is an entrepreneurial development and management consultant who operates mainly in the small and medium enterprise sector. For more information on this topic, please send enquiries to

by Merlin Hernandez


Emerging business practices among global partners often attempt to superimpose alien cultural values and practices on local standards and traditions. There is often the assumption by western societies that pathways to development in less-developed economies involve the adoption of western models, policies, and similar projects. It is an ethnocentric view that applies western-biased value judgments to foreign cultural traditions and indigenous growth models.

This presents ethical dilemmas that arise in the tradeoff between economic growth and political self-determination. Large multinationals have long taken advantage of the growth potential of so-called emerging markets through cheap labor for manufacturing and/or indigenous micro distribution networks that have intimate knowledge of localized channels. But little consideration is given to the value of these communities to the corporations’ cost efficiencies and distribution networks i.e. host economies are vital components to increased profits but not sufficiently valued to warrant investment in their socio-economic condition.

Traditional economic measures of societal development (GNP, GDP) have come under criticism for their failure to fully accommodate quality of life (QOL) factors to real development. This has resulted in the development of social indicators which are slowly infusing measurements for ethical business practices into the mix, particularly in a cross-cultural context. Multinational corporations may be ethically bound to participate more directly in the development of host economies by seeking to engage governments in a dialogue on how they might improve the lives of those who will comprise the labor force or provide ancillary services.

Current globalization practices are not geared towards the macroeconomic changes that empower the world’s poorer people. These relationships do not support better working conditions, improved wage structures, easier access to education, nutrition or health care. It is a business model that remains essentially one-sided with profits funneled back to the parent company. So while growth is generated in the poorer economy, ownership still rests with the developed world and the populations of host nations do not benefit from the long term advantages of their productivity.

Economic colonialism results from the wanton imposition of business models and policies with a profound profit motive that serves to enrich only the major corporations operating in these less-developed economies.  Global businesses have used these localized systems with little regard for the QOL considerations of their micro partners. It gives an appreciation of the Chinese model for global integration which has a clear focus on China’s needs in the equation with a web of regulations and allowable practices designed to support the growth of indigenous Chinese businesses.

A more ethical approach on the part of multinationals would involve the building of meaningful partnerships through the recognition of the developmental needs of the local economy. Corporate proactivity may take the form of micro entrepreneurship schemes through facilitating uncollaterized micro credit for small factories and micro distributors as well as businesses like bakeries, laundermats, groceries, drug stores, feed stores, agribusiness – ventures that will grow with the new job opportunities and higher standard of living of small towns and villages.

Responsible and ethical marketing practices would then view host economies not merely as emerging markets – a passive construct – but as emerging participants in the global business environment with the capacity to be producers as well as consumers. Partnership with government agencies can see new schools and health centers to more efficiently serve the needs of the community.  Community micro distribution channels that benefit the market penetration objectives of the multinational partner will see higher living standards translate into higher sales volumes. It would indeed be a win-win all around – for producer, intermediary, and consumer.

Global expansion will then be governed by the need for large western corporations to be instrumental in improving living standards, and initiating social enterprise as well as inclusive capitalism projects. This would help to develop local expertise and small businesses, and facilitate business training and access to micro credit that will support economic growth and social empowerment, the building blocks of self-determination.

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Merlin Hernandez is an entrepreneurial development and management consultant who operates mainly in the small and medium enterprise sector. For more information on this and other topics, please send enquiries to