S.C. Rep. Kenneth Hodges knows the power of small businesses to lift people from poverty.
On mission trips to Africa since the mid-1980s, the Baptist pastor and Democrat from Green Pond has seen people use modest loans to start businesses that feed entire families in places like Kenya and Uganda.
In part because of his experiences abroad, Hodges believes South Carolina should do more to boost "micro-enterprises" -- businesses that he said generally have five or fewer employees and startup costs of $35,000 or less.
"The only way we're going to be able to address the unemployment issue is for us to address it from the bottom up," said Hodges, who also runs his own micro-enterprise, Beaufort art gallery LyBensons.
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Hodges, who last year sponsored legislation to form a committee to study micro-enterprise and establish June as Micro-enterprise Development Month in the state, said interest in the sector is growing.
Last month, he helped organize an event in which business leaders from around the state came to Columbia and called for a trade association to help strengthen micro-enterprises.
Participants included local representatives from the Lowcountry Small Business Hub, Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, University of South Carolina Small Business Development Center, and the Small Business Assistance Corp.
Advocates for micro-enterprises on Monday suggested a variety of ways the state could enhance support.
Hodges suggested creating a public-private micro-enterprise development bank and tax incentives for micro-enterprises. The state should make such measures part of its economic development strategy along with luring large corporations, he said. Micro-enterprise can help rural areas unlikely to receive much benefit from new Boeing and Amazon plants, he said.
D'Jaris Moore, president and chief operating officer of the Lowcountry Small Business Hub, echoed Hodges' call for a micro-enterprise lending program and suggested access to technical assistance for micro-enterprises should be expanded to areas that lack it.
"Some people have access," Moore said. "Some people don't."
Barrett Collins, a Bluffton micro-entrepreneur who sells peanut brittle at farmers markets and retail outlets under the name Bluffton Brittle, applauded efforts to help businesses like hers.
"It's nice to know there's this statewide network that's doing this drumbeat," Collins said.