High-flying UP alumna promotes partnerships between SA and Brazilian start-ups

Posted on February 23, 2023

University of Pretoria (UP) graduate Cecilia Iturralde speaks four languages, can understand six, and has for the past 15 years been a Spanish interpreter to the President of South Africa and the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.

Iturralde, who attained her Bachelor of Arts in Speech Pathology and Audiology degree from UP in 1985 and a master’s degree in public policy from the Catholic University of Bolivia in 2004, She managed an independent consulting firm that specialised in attracting direct foreign investments into Bolivia, however she later joined South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). She was posted to Burkina Faso, Belgium and is currently serving in Brazil, promoting economic relationships between South Africa and her host country.

When we spoke to her she was excited about a pending project which would see SA welcoming 120 Brazilian tech start-ups with the aim of creating partnerships and knowledge exchanges with 120 South African counterparts.

 “During this visit, start-ups will receive mentorship, they will be exposed to match-making sessions, and they will get a chance to meet South African companies and industry leaders and pitch their products,” Iturralde said. “Hopefully South African start-ups will find a niche in Brazil, and Brazilian start-ups will find a market for their products in South Africa.”

Iturralde says the South African Embassy in Brazil has been engaging with Instituto Jovem Exportador (IJEx), a non-profit organisation with headquarters in the capital city of Brasília, for over 18 months. IJEx trains and empowers young entrepreneurs and start-ups primarily in Brazil’s northern and north-eastern regions. “IJEx gives them exposure to international markets. South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation has a Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) which also offers this type of training to start-ups and entrepreneurs. TIA accepted the challenge to host the delegation from Brazil.”

She says Brazil and South Africa are also looking at merging two major events: Brasília's Innovation Summit and South Africa’s Innovation Summit. “IJEx hopes to have technology innovators from all the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries involved. South Africa’s Innovation Summit already involves Southern African Development Community member countries, so this is going to be a great experience for the technology and innovation ecosystem, as they come together under one roof.”

Iturralde says the motivation behind the Brazil-South Africa start-up and academic partnerships was that Brazilian academic institutions are keen to collaborate with South African universities on joint research and development endeavours, from developing satellites to producing green hydrogen or teaching students leadership skills through problem-solving and collaboration.

She says it’s important to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship among the youth in both countries. “Not everyone needs to go to university to succeed. Endless opportunities exist for technical education that are in high demand and offer impressive salaries. We need to demystify the notion that if you do not have a degree, life will be doom and gloom. Not so. If you do not have a skill, then only will life be tough.”

She believes entrepreneurship forces us to challenge our comfort zones: “It’s about harnessing initiatives and creating opportunities. It’s all about curiosity, being a risk-taker, taking the initiative to be one’s own boss, to make things happen your way, and not to rely on handouts or an unfulfilling job. It is also the best alternative to unemployment.”

- Author Xolani Mathibela

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