The positive impact of American small businesses is not just seen on Main Street. It is felt worldwide, including in developing and middle-income countries. In fact, many entrepreneurs often play a key role in improving the quality of life in the developing world.
As Director of the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), Enoh T. Ebong leads the federal government’s efforts to advance economic development, along with U.S. commercial interests, in developing and middle-income countries. Established in 1992, the USTDA promotes growth in these countries, while creating American jobs through exports.
Director Ebong and I recently spoke about her work at USTDA and the role small businesses play. I am grateful to her for taking the time and below is a summary of our discussion.
Rhett Buttle: A lot of people and business owners have probably never heard of USTDA. What is USTDA’s mission and what makes the agency unique?
Director Ebong: Thank you for this opportunity. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency has a very large set of domestic and overseas stakeholders, and the more they know about us, the better!
USTDA is a U.S. government agency with a unique dual mission. We are a foreign assistance agency that develops high-quality, sustainable infrastructure in emerging economies overseas. At the same time, we have a mandate to support U.S. jobs through the export of U.S. goods and services to the infrastructure projects that we help develop. I’d like to illustrate how that works.
A few years ago, we funded a feasibility study in Honduras that helped attract a private sector developer to invest in and build the first utility-scale geothermal power plant in Platanares, in the western part of the country. The plant opened in 2018. Our sister agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (which is now the Development Finance Corporation) provided $135 million in financing. This plant now generates 35 megawatts of clean, reliable electricity – enough to supply power to about 100,000 homes. The Platanares geothermal power plant was constructed using goods and services from 70 U.S. companies in 17 U.S. states, and we know of at least eight U.S. small businesses that were part of the supply chain for the power plant.
This project is just one example of how USTDA’s tools can help our overseas partners identify the technology and design options for their projects, as well as structure infrastructure deals that can be financed, implemented, and sustained. It also demonstrates how we can create the opportunity for U.S. companies to supply an overseas market need.
We also focus on large-scale infrastructure projects. This includes clean energy, which is the fastest growing part of our portfolio, as well as transportation, information and communications technology, and healthcare infrastructure. We work in dozens of emerging economies overseas in key regions including the Indo-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Eurasia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
USTDA has a unique set of tools to achieve its mission. We provide grant-based funding for feasibility studies, such as the one we supported in Platanares, as well as technical assistance, and pilot projects.
In addition to this project preparation work, USTDA also funds partnership-building activities that link overseas project sponsors to U.S. businesses that can provide solutions for the infrastructure challenges that our overseas partners face. For example, in 2017 USTDA funded a reverse trade mission to the United States for leaders from Indonesia’s meteorology and maritime sectors who were seeking solutions to strengthen the country’s resilience to natural disasters and climate change. The delegation participated in site visits, company tours, and discussions with U.S. technology providers, government agencies, and research institutions across the United States. The visit contributed to Indonesia’s procurement of meteorology and maritime observation technologies from multiple U.S. companies, including four small U.S. businesses. This is a good example of how USTDA brings export opportunities to the doorsteps of American companies.
Buttle: How does the work of the USTDA directly impact small businesses here at home and abroad? How do they benefit from your agency’s efforts?
Director Ebong: Since USTDA’s founding in 1992, we have facilitated more than $76 billion in U.S. exports, including from small businesses in 370 communities across the country.
Small businesses play a critical role in USTDA’s decision-making processes and overall program. For example, we contract predominantly with small businesses to supplement our technical review of the proposals that we receive for overseas infrastructure projects. These are excellent opportunities for small businesses to work collaboratively with USTDA and to have an impact that is truly global in nature.
Without question, USTDA relies on the expertise and innovation of U.S. small businesses. We are also committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. This is an important formula for our success. Just consider some of our numbers. In fiscal year 2021, USTDA awarded about 82% of the total value of our government contracts to U.S. small businesses. Minority-owned small businesses were awarded 42% of the total value of our government contracts, and woman-owned small businesses were awarded 24% of the total value of our government contracts. These are strong results, but we continue to strive to do more.
Buttle: You were recently confirmed to your role as Director of USTDA. Tell us more about your goals and how that will impact entrepreneurs?
Director Ebong: Entrepreneurs have always had access to USTDA’s program, whether those entrepreneurs are U.S.-based individuals who are developing infrastructure projects overseas or overseas entrepreneurs who are developing infrastructure projects and wish to access the project preparation expertise or the innovative technologies that U.S. companies have to offer.
I have several goals as USTDA’s Director. One is to extend our Agency’s ecosystem of opportunity to every U.S. company that shares our mission. This especially includes companies that have been historically underserved, including small, woman-owned, minority-owned, and disadvantaged businesses. I want to ensure that opportunity is inclusive and shared among the diverse spectrum of companies that exist in this country.
From a sectoral perspective, we are working to expand the Agency’s dynamic portfolio of climate-smart infrastructure projects in emerging economies overseas. For example, in April 2021 President Biden launched USTDA’s Global Partnership for Climate-Smart Infrastructure. In its first year, we funded more than two dozen project preparation and partnership-building activities that are designed to help unlock more than $50 billion in climate finance and support more than $12 billion in U.S. exports. Tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad – using U.S. technological innovation – is a vital goal for USTDA, the United States, and our partners overseas.
Buttle: As an independent agency, can you describe how USTDA works across agencies and departments, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration and Department of Commerce, to achieve its mission?
Director Ebong: USTDA’s interagency coordination begins with the White House. For example, the Biden-Harris Administration has requested USTDA engagement on several priority global initiatives, including the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which was launched last month by the President and leaders of the G-7. USTDA has also been named as an implementing agency for the President’s January 2021 Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.
On priority initiatives such as these, USTDA participates in the interagency policy committee processes led by the White House National Security Council. We then work with our interagency partners to coordinate our respective tools to implement the Administration’s priorities. Some of our closest partner agencies include the Export-Import Bank, Department of Commerce, the Development Finance Corporation, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and USAID. We also work closely with technical agencies including the U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation to support programming that advances our shared international priorities. The breadth of our collaboration across the U.S. government is notable, and it takes place at all levels within our respective agencies.
For example, under the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative, USTDA was part of a whole-of-government effort to help Illinois-based small business Weldy-Lamont Associates win a major rural electrification project in Senegal. We funded a reverse trade mission to the United States to introduce Senegalese power officials to U.S. solutions and offered specialized training assistance if they selected Weldy for their project. USAID referred Weldy to USTDA. In addition, the U.S. Departments of Commerce and State advocated on behalf of Weldy to the Senegalese government. When Weldy was ultimately selected, the Export-Import Bank approved $91.5 million in financing for the project, which is supporting approximately 500 U.S. jobs in nine U.S. states. This is a great example of how U.S. government agencies coordinate to support U.S. companies overseas.
Domestically, we work closely with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to make sure that small businesses are aware of the very distinct but complementary missions and services that we can offer. Commerce and SBA both have an incredible domestic network of professionals who regularly refer businesses to USTDA that wish to explore the export of infrastructure goods and services to emerging economies overseas. Likewise, USTDA refers businesses to Commerce and SBA for services that pertain to their specific mission.
Buttle: How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact USTDA and its partners?
Director Ebong: Thanks to excellent preparation, USTDA was able to quickly pivot toward a virtual work environment during the first few days of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. With some creativity and adjustments to our operations, we were able to continue our project preparation work virtually. However, many of our events had to be postponed. The result is that we have a very busy and active events schedule for the remainder of 2022 and into 2023. U.S. companies should go to our website and find out how they can participate.
During the pandemic, we learned how our previous infrastructure development work helped our overseas partners to manage the economic impact of Covid. For example, one partner in Brazil told us that our assistance to help them develop greater broadband capacity allowed them to manage a very large influx of internet traffic across their region during the early stages of Covid when a lot of work went virtual. And we learned how our assistance to implement a national healthcare IT project in Jordan helped to support Covid-19 tracking and healthcare delivery under difficult circumstances. In each case, U.S. technology that was deployed as a result of USTDA’s assistance ultimately facilitated these countries’ ability to weather the pandemic.
Buttle: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Director Ebong: In addition to a very warm “thank you,” I would encourage people to visit our website, and to follow us across our social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. On our website, please be sure to subscribe to our news and alerts. This is the best way to have USTDA-funded opportunities delivered directly to your inbox.