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Updated: Jun 17, 2020

By Tommy Leighton

Colombian banana exporter DAABON is transforming the culture of the people living in its Santa Marta heartland with a ground-breaking project to empower the region’s women: The University of Women

“Our industry has been male dominated, in part due to the physical nature of the work and the traditional role of women in Colombia’s rural communities. But we found a strong entrepreneurial and leadership spirit amongst women in our community and our Sustainability Director Felipe Guerrero and his team identified the areas where we could introduce more women into our processes. Where it is most evident to date is in the post-harvest phase of our banana production, which is mostly run by women. Felipe recognized that women are more quality and care oriented, and have greater attention to detail.

Patricia Apreza, DAABON’s Social Responsibility Manager in Santa Marta, set about establishing women’s networks and talked to women in the area about their entrepreneurial activities, with a view to harness their strengths and provide them with opportunities to expand what they were already doing alongside DAABON. One good example is a company that makes uniforms; DAABON invested in the infrastructure of the fledgling business and guaranteed an exclusive supply deal that has allowed it to grow.

As well as providing seed capital, DAABON also provided training, leadership and management guidance, but they own their own business,” says Astrid Duque Managing director of DAABON UK. “It has been a big success; as you can imagine, DAABON buys quite a lot of uniforms! They supply most of the company’s annual purchases, and have expanded to provide for local services, such as the local police department and schools.

Internally, the business has changed dramatically too. A series of women-led committees within DAABON have given the female workforce a direct line into the senior management team and allowed their voices to be heard in a much more robust way than ever before. However, the focus is more holistic than simply nurturing women who work for the business – DAABON’s commitment to help women in its local community manifests itself in several ways.

The group has created a “Women’s University” – overseen by Apreza – which is run by women working at DAABON, but also there for women who don’t work for the company. “It is all about taking the women of our communities and making them more visible – enabling them to spread the skills and knowledge that they are gaining by working in the company or formally learning, as well as the kindness and compassion that, as a recently war-torn country, we need to bring people on both sides of the divide back together.” says Duque.

Biodance, a system of dance movement created in the 1960s by the Chilean anthropologist and psychologist Rolando Toro, has been introduced to further nurture a spirit of forgiveness and union. “It is liberating for the women who run it and participate,” says Apreza. “Through dance and movement, they are being healed from the psychological, physical or sexual violence of the past.”

Another project, to get families in and around Santa Marta to eat more green vegetables, sees DAABON providing knowledge to women to plant in their gardens, so they can become self-sufficient in vegetables and to feed their families better.

We have made amazing progress,” says Guerrero. “But we know we have to be help women more and support them better. Still, women are only around 20% of our workforce and we are working every day to address the gender imbalance. But the outcomes so far have been excellent. Women have always been the heads of their families in Colombia, but through our empowerment programme, many of them are now able to communicate better as individuals and more willing to work collectively to achieve better results for their community.

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