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Monday, June 24, 2002

Brazil's answer to Silicon Valley
Marion Kaplan

THIS small and pretty town of 31,000 on the Sapucai River in southern Brazil was once dependent on that great but unreliable Brazilian staple - coffee - for its precarious prosperity.

Now it is the country's answer to Silicon Valley in California, thanks to the vision and foresight of the wife of a Brazilian ambassador to the Far East who thought about it nearly 50 years ago.

Santa Rita, in the state of Minas Gerais, is the leading electronics and telecom centre of Brazil, known as Vale da Eletronica - or Electronics Valley. It owes its pre-eminence to Sinya Moreira, the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to Japan back in the fifties, who was inspired by what she had seen of Japan's developing electronics capabilities.

On her return home, she then found Latin America's first electronics technical school.


From that small acorn has grown an interdependent academic-industrial complex on mini-Silicon Valley lines, whose key assets include an enterprising science park, a culture of training and innovation, a strong computer skills base, business support and development services and the encouragement of information exchange and technical research.

Brazil's leading telecommunications organisation, INATEL, is in Santa Rita, housed in a handsome redbrick building fronting an airy, well-equipped campus extending over 75,000 square-meters. For the past 37 years, INATEL has provided specialised education in communications engineering and degree courses in the most advanced telecommunications techniques. Nearby is the rapidly expanding Administration and Computer Sciences Faculty (FAI, founded 1971), with a sophisticated range of technical, environmental and urban management courses.

This California-style academic complex has spawned more than 60 small and medium-sized companies. Many of these are producing hardware, software and high-specification telecommunications, electronic and digital systems with an annual turnover of around $ 90 million.

Often they have sprung from the town's `incubadoras' - or incubation programmes - backed by INATEL and the municipality supporting start-ups created by students, graduates and alumni. Walk into any one of a couple of dozen basic office spaces furnished with desks, chairs and computers and bright-eyed young men and women will enthusiastically explain their creative ideas.

In one company, Telesystem, three young persons are producing a Brazilian-made irrigation system. At Intelfarm Telecommunications, Marcelo Baldini and his partners Iliana and Saldanha are expanding their farm communications project. 'They suit the large fazendas (farm estates), a good market for us,' says Marcelo. Elsewhere, at GWD Solutions, Guilherme Santa Rosa and his two partners supply various business solutions based on the freely available Linux operating system. Nearby, two students create a management programme for a small aircraft company.

There are close links with the big industrial players, such as multinationals, Motorola and Ericsson. Projects abound. The European Union, through the IEL Institute, has a programme to stimulate cooperation and a French technology university is also involved in backing projects.

Students who are accepted are guaranteed a sophisticated and specialised education that prepares them for a demanding marketplace in a huge democratic and stable nation and a competitive world.

However Santa Rita is more than just an enterprising municipality. Family ties are important and the classrooms of its schools - all equipped with computer labs -are full of children and grandchildren of original graduates, many of whom make up today's teaching staff.

Sinya Moreira, the well-travelled woman who more than 50 years ago had the money, authority and imagination to pioneer electronics education in Santa Rita would have been proud of the way her brainchild has grown up. ONS