CGIAR Initiative NATURE+ unites circular economy entrepreneurs in Colombia

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CGIAR’s Nature-Positive Solutions Initiative is working with green-economy entrepreneurs who have the potential to become leaders in Colombia’s growing circular economy. A three-day boot camp at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in Palmira, Colombia was a recent milestone in a long-term project to help support, incentivize and research circular economic activity in the country.

A normal Saturday morning for Mireya Hernández starts at 3 a.m. when she departs her remote rural town for an outdoor market in Cali, a city of 2.2 million people in Colombia’s southwest, to sell organic food from her family’s tiny farm. Everything from their fresh produce to the preserves is highly recommended, her clients say, but Hernández’s top suggestion is, “Show up early.”

Even a rainstorm won’t keep her regular clients away.

“I’ve been coming here for years,” said María Cristina Rodríguez, 45, who stocked up for the week as deep puddles soaked everyone’s shoes and the wind whipped the rickety market stalls. The market’s food is fresher and cheaper than what she’d find in a supermarket, she said, “and the quality is just ‘wow.’”

Other appetites and wallets clearly agreed. By 9 a.m., just as the storm lifted, vendors’ stock was mostly sold out.

And that’s a bit of a problem. Or as Hernández sees it, it’s a business opportunity.

Waste not

Hernández, 57, is part of an informal group of 12 circular economy entrepreneurs brought together from across Colombia by the CGIAR Initiative on Nature-Positive Solutions (NATURE+). They recently wrapped up a 3-day “boot camp” designed to help their businesses grow to meet the increasing demand for the products of a circular economy – fertilizer made from a city’s food scraps, protein derived from discarded shrimp husks, energy harvested from livestock manure, organic food from farmers who produce their own seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

[Video: Watch the mini-documentary from the boot camp here.]

“Waste management in Colombia, particularly in rural areas, is unsustainable and inefficient,” said Guillermo Peña Chipatecua, a senior research associate at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “But these companies show that change is possible, and that the economic potential of a paradigm shift is huge.”

The bootcamp follows almost two years of the Initiatives’ work on circular economic activity. NATURE+ produced analyses for Burkina Faso, Colombia, India, Kenya and Vietnam. Based on those, various strategies are being deployed to strengthen these sectors in – and beyond – Initiative work sites in each country.

Boot camp organizer Guillermo Peña Chipatecua talks to entrepreneurs during a rest break.

In Colombia, researchers put out a call for circular economy entrepreneurs and joined forces with Colombia’s national extended education service, SENA, to identify what type of startups were where, understand their needs, and develop training and financing schemes to help them build their businesses. This learning process will help identify future policy proposals that governments can implement to support the country’s circular economy.

But the Initiative aims to go well beyond the basics of running a business and helping create an enabling environment. Many of the startups have little formal training and will need more than crash courses on administration and finance: they will need the mettle to push ahead when inevitable obstacles arise.

“If I take advantage of these spaces [like the boot camp], I get prepared and I strengthen myself, I minimize this factor of fear that I have because I know how to solve a problem,” said Carlos Matallana, an expert on entrepreneurship at SENA who led activities during the boot camp. “Because when the moment of a problem arises, I can face it … and get my business through it.”

SENA’s Carlos Matallana talks to entrepreneurs during the boot camp.

No obstacle too big – yet

Hernández is undaunted. During the boot camp, she handily matched or surpassed her peers in energetically sharing stories of their startups’ pitfalls and achievements, and interacting with experts on entrepreneurship, fundraising, innovation, marketing – and how to keep small, pioneering rural businesses alive against the odds – including market forces and armed ones.

About 20 years ago, she overcame stage-3 uterine cancer, which required attention in Bogotá, the capital. When Hernández and her family returned to their hometown in southwestern Colombia, they found their home was gone due to armed conflict.

She then moved to another rural town blighted by armed conflict. There, she started an organic farm not for environmental reasons, but for self-sufficiency: due to her isolation and surrounding instability, she didn’t want her family’s food security to be compromised by limited access to conventional farming’s need for industry-supplied seeds, fertilizers and pest controls.

Within a few years, she was selling excess produce in Cali. Recently, she formally created a business called Tierra Limpia – “Clean Earth” – and now envisions establishing a permanent point of sale in the city. “Our business is small but our vision is big,” she said.

Many of the startups at the bootcamp have already overcome obstacles, including discrimination.

“At the beginning, I lost motivation because they said, ‘How is it possible that they are letting someone start a business if they have no idea what they are doing?’” said Jaqueline Sevillano, 47, whose small company – comprised of 12 women and one man – processes shrimp husks, that would otherwise be thrown into the ocean, into a protein-rich flour they sell in Tumaco, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. “But we don’t let ourselves get frightened just because we’re women. We’re moving ahead.”

Jaqueline Sevillano speaks during one of the boot camp sessions.

New green business community

When Elverth Díaz and Diego Grillo began BIOSOS, which uses black soldier flies to turn food waste from hotels and restaurants into fertilizer (and excess soldier fly larva into protein for pets), they felt as if they were “alone on the open sea.” But after meeting fellow entrepreneurs and working with NATURE+, Díaz now feels his growing business is part of a fleet of ships embarking on a similar journey.

“Now we see unity and the focus of a general community that says, ‘you’re not alone; we’re working together and we hope we can help one another move our projects forward,” said Díaz, 34, an industrial engineer.

Elverth Díaz and Diego Grillo join in one of the boot camp’s many cultural activities.

Díaz’s company plans to process up to 2 tons of waste per day “in the short term” but the city dump receives about 60 tons per day. Sevillano shrimp protein startup only processes a few hundred kilos a week of the countless thousands that get dumped in the ocean every day. Hernández’s organics business will need far more than a hectare of productive land if it plans on keeping shelves stocked all week instead of for just a few hours every Saturday.

“I see several of these startups as being very viable,” said Andrés Palomar, 36, an agricultural engineer whose startup consultancy was part of the boot camp. “All of them in one way or another right now need technical or normative advice.”

Andrés Palomar discusses circular economy activities during the boot camp.

Discussions at the boot camp included how the entrepreneurs could form an association to help take advantage of their formidable growth opportunities. Addressing financial, legal and technical challenges will be part of the Initiative’s collaboration with the startups in 2024.

A deeper connection with nature

SENA’s Matallana is optimistic, given society’s need to address the climate, food security and livelihood crises that many face in Colombia.

“This is a problem of a negative environmental impact,” Matallana said. “They are turning it into a positive.”

Boot camp participants visit the Alliance’s Circular Economy Laboratory.

While business viability is key, boot camp organizers set out to make the event much more than just a series of inspiring technical training seminars. The Alliance’s Peña, who led the event’s organization, said part of the goal was to get participants “out of their comfort zone,” through cultural and physical activities. These included pre-dawn exercises, meditation and a dawn cacao ceremony that followed a fire ceremony the night before.

An indigenous spiritual guide led the ceremonies, which included a strong emphasis on how human activity is disrupting nature, which contributes to a growing disequilibrium between people and the natural world. These optional events were well attended – and very well received.

Milton Narváez, a 63-year-old cattle rancher who is working on waste management plans for his small community of 400 people near Colombia’s mountainous border with Ecuador, said he’d never participated in any indigenous ceremonies before but was impressed by what he learned.

Milton Narváez and Mireya Hernández participate in one of the boot camp’s early morning cultural activities.

“It personally stimulated the life relationship one must have with nature,” said Narváez, adding that he plans to do a similar boot camp for his 25-person organization, including the ceremonies. “It seems like it is something fundamental in the human being because it helps us reestablish our relationship with nature.”


Writing and reporting by Sean Mattson, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Photography by Juan Pablo Marín and Alexander Gómez

Videography by La Cuadra Visual


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