As scientist from the isolated coastal rainforest region of Colombia, Mabel stimulates sustainable economic development in biodiverse areas by connecting ancestral knowledge, science, and entrepreneurship to create a “bioeconomy.”
The New Idea
Mabel puts science in the service of the population of the Colombian rainforest, a largely Afro-descendent population with deep traditional knowledge of the productive uses of plants in this biodiverse region. In a region that suffers from severe isolation and poverty, where there are few economic alternatives to unsustainable and exploitative extractive industries, Mabel promotes a sustainable microeconomy through enabling scientific innovation for the development and commercialization of products such as foods, medicinal products and cosmetics of high added value, the ingredients for which come from the region’s biodiversity.
Mabel has developed a local laboratory and center for innovation that is the catalyst for sustainable economic development in the region. The center enables the collaboration of ancestral knowledge and modern science for improving existing local products and developing new ones in an environmentally sustainable way. Alongside product innovation, Mabel works with local entrepreneurs to support their enterprises to grow and employ more people, as well as to develop collaborative anchor enterprises in the region that can support the engagement of small producers. Finally, she helps connect these enterprises to markets. As such, she is driving a new local economy of bio-entrepreneurs that is improving quality of life for the population while preserving the biodiversity of the region. Scientists and other professionals who had left the region due to conflict and lack of opportunity are now returning as a result of Mabel’s efforts. Her model is replicable to other places with high biodiversity.
In Colombia, there are multiple territories rich in biodiversity such as the Chocó Biogeographic, which has tropical rainforests that surpass 46,000 square kilometers, and where one of the greatest riches in biological diversity of the planet is concentrated. It is estimated that in the Amazon rainforest there is 20% of the world's oxygen, 50% of plants and animals and 70% of medicinal plants for cancer treatment.
The Chocó is a department of 480,826 habitants, mainly Afro-descendants (82.1%) and indigenous people (12.7%). It is one of the least developed regions of the country, with 78.5% of the Chocoan population living below the poverty line, and 48.7% living in extreme poverty. The lowest levels of per capita income in the country are reported in the Pacific Coast, where women are heads of households.
Additionally, Chocó is one of the most violent and corrupt territories in Colombia. In 2016, there were 30 murders per 100.000 habitants, and thousands of people have been displaced by violence in a region with lucrative criminal economies in drug trafficking and illegal gold mining. Furthermore, the Colombian armed conflict has increased the vulnerability of the communities and ecosystems in these territories. Faced with this situation, the population has been forced over the years to migrate to populated centers to settle in city slums. Because of the low level of development in the region, Chocó sees significant aid money pour in, but there is little to show for it, in large part due to the corruption. Colombia as a whole is rated highly corrupt by Transparency International, and this is particularly a problem in Chocó.
The primary industry in Chocó is gold and silver extraction, which leads to significant deforestation and the disappearance of plant species. Each month in Colombia, 2,000 hectares of woods and vegetation disappear because of the gold extractive industries and 46% of this deforestation takes place in Chocó. In 2014, 36,185 hectares of rainforest was destroyed by backhoes, dredgers and rafts that have devastated land and rivers. There are some movements against mining in the regions, but few economic alternatives.
Local enterprise suffers from a lack of technological development and road infrastructure systems that prevent the connection of this area with other territories of Colombia and the world. The scarce money the population earns for the sale of their products is not enough to obtain finished products; therefore, the territory does not have an economic dynamic of growth, resulting in a mindset of dependency on the government.
As a scientist who returned to her native region of Chocó to develop a cure for cancer from a fungus found in the rainforest, Mabel saw the opportunity that bringing scientific knowledge to a community rich in ancestral knowledge in a region rich in biodiversity could create for economic development. She set up the Center of Science, Technology, and Innovation for the Productive Development of Biodiversity, BIOINNOVA, in the heart of the Colombian rainforest as a catalyst for a new bio-economy. BIOINNOVA is stimulating local development by applying scientific processes to develop and improve local products, supporting local enterprise, and connecting producers in this isolated region to a market for their goods.
Mabel puts in the service of the local population a scientific laboratory for the development and certification of local products. BIOINNOVA uses the laboratory to help local producers improve their products for commercialization, addressing such issues as quality and preservation using natural plant properties rather than chemicals or artificial ingredients. For example, turmeric is used as a product to help with digestive issues, but the grain dries in fifteen days, becoming unusable. So BIOINNOVA worked with the producers to instead develop a process for extracting oil from the grain that can be preserved for much longer. In another case, they worked with a producer of vinegar to improve the fermentation process. Working with producers, they have developed products as diverse as processed fish products with no preservatives or artificial flavorings, various kinds of soaps (exfoliants, antibacterial, moisturizers, antiseptics, among others), oils, dyes, anti-inflammatories, and natural moisturizers, all made with regional raw materials.
By basing a laboratory in the region, Mabel helps change the dynamic of extraction and exploitation of resources for the benefit of outsiders to one of local ownership, innovation, and production for the benefit of the region and its inhabitants. Prior to BIOINNOVA, it was practically impossible for local producers to access a resource like this. Furthermore, by using modern scientific processes to improve upon traditional knowledge, the center repairs a rupture between the two and builds interest and trust in modern science in a community that generally has only experienced it as exploitative. Mabel runs regular programming for children and young people at the laboratory to teach them about science, develop them as research trainees, and help them recognize science as an opportunity for development of their region. She is changing the mindset articulated by one young person who, when she came to the laboratory, told Mabel that she had thought science was something only for rich, white men.
Improving and innovating products is only the first part of BIOINNOVA’s work with producers. They also train and empower producers as entrepreneurs, helping them to develop the right mindset, improve the presentation of their products, formalize their companies, and certify their factories and products. BIOINNOVA hosts a variety of trainings designed to support entrepreneurs in developing their individual enterprises but also in stimulating this new economy. As such, topics range from accounting to agricultural best practices to leadership to social responsibility.
They work with a variety of different types of producers. For instance, Winston Cuesta was a professor who had an enterprise on the side developing products such as wines, jellies, and vinegar from tropical fruits. He spent twenty years working by himself, always asking the government for help, with the mindset that the government had an obligation to assist him. Though skeptical, he attended a session at BIOINNOVA, which grew into a relationship through which BIONNOVA supported him to change his mindset, helping him believe he had a good balsamic vinegar product with market potential and didn’t need the government; to improve the product to have the specifications needed to go to market, including a better fermentation process and better product presentation; to acquire the right technologies and obtain certification for his production plant; and to connect with the agricultural community to develop a sustainable supply chain. Winston went from producing 5,000 liters to 30,000 liters, employs 13 people during production times, and is now selling his product to WOK restaurants, a national chain in Colombia, as well as a restaurant in Spain.
Winston purchases his raw materials from other local producers. Luis Emiro Martínez is a member of the Doña Josefa cooperative, which grows the borojó fruit that Winston now uses for his vinegar. The cooperative has 46 producers. Thanks to Mabel, the group has incorporated good agricultural and manufacturing practices and better unified the cooperative so that they can harvest and market as an organized group, set prices and generate economic benefits for all. For example, they used to individually use their own boats to transport product to market but now organize with one boat for greater efficiency and reduced environmental impact. Through BIOINNOVA, they connected with Winston to supply the borojó for his vinegar that is now reaching national and international markets. Luis Emiro is now able to generate sufficient resources for his family, as well as work for the community.
While some local entrepreneurs have the capacity to independently grow their enterprises to a significant extent, there are also numerous solo small producers and potential producers without the independent ability to stimulate economic development. Therefore, Mabel has created a model that connects small producers in anchor “Globo” enterprises around a particular product. These enterprises can then absorb many individual producers. For example, BIOINNOVA works with female heads of families displaced by violence, who formed a productive unit called Las Mesmas, which make soaps from recycled cooking oil. In the group, there are mothers who cannot read or write, and the youngest is approximately 55 years old. Ernestina Córdoba is one of the members. After losing her husband to guerilla violence, she needed to support her 8 children so joined Las Mesmas. At first, the women were afraid to formalize a company, but with Mabel's support, Las Mesmas systematized their production process and optimized the quality of the products, then obtained a certification that allows them to market their products and grow to a wider market. They left the subsistence economy to create a formal company that now enables over 100 women to support their families and provides a needed product to vulnerable communities in 8 different villages, while recycling oil that would otherwise be thrown in the river, damaging the local ecosystem. Ernestina is now proud to leave her company’s legacy to her children.
To enable market access for producers in this isolated region, Mabel has developed an eco-store called BIO Windows, a trading enterprise that makes local brands visible under a common marketing strategy and connects the micro productive units with the market. She currently has one store in Quidbo, the main city of Chocó, as well as an online presence, and she is in conversations to replicate the store in Bogotá, Cali, and Buenaventura. The store provides an opportunity for small producers to access commercial opportunities. For instance, someone who came to know a local coffee product through the store is now helping commercialize it in Bogotá. Furthermore, for those producers without a company, Mabel has developed the social brand BIOMIA, which allows entrepreneurs who do not have a formal company to own an identity and market their products this way. As such, she lowers barriers to entry for producers that do not have the formality of a company, but do have a high-quality product. Producers do not have to wait until they can produce large quantities to enter the market. Through BIOMIA and BIO Windows, they can sell products to the extent of their capacity, while educating themselves and generating capital to grow their production.
In 2015, Mabel also launched SELVACÉUTICA, a company built on her original research in biomedicine to develop bio-cosmetics and phytopharmaceutical products from fungi, other plants and ancestral knowledge.
The result of Mabel’s work is a growing network of local producers and companies that link to and leverage each other to add value to natural resources, create sustainable products, and generate economic development in the region. BIOINNOVA has worked directly with 600 producers in 60 different enterprises in 15 different municipalities. Ten of these enterprises are now running independently, having achieved standards of economic and environmental sustainability. The other 50 are in the process of working with BIOINNOVA. Currently, 90% of the initiatives supported by Mabel have the capacity to supply local markets, and 10% are ready for medium-sized markets. The enterprises are creating hundreds of jobs, through which many people are moving from being unemployed to earning $270/month. BIOINNOVA has helped certify the first cleaning products and natural cosmetics factories in the Colombian Pacific, as well as two more food production industries. Mabel has also successfully created the first bioeconomy and culture festival to promote the local entrepreneurs and their products.
Mabel has achieved recognition in the ranking of the Green Latin America awards as one of the best enterprises in social innovation and recognition from the IDB as one of the best centers of the world with impact in development. Her work is also leading to the return of professionals to the region. For instance, before BIOINNOVA, there were no production engineers in Chocó. Now, numerous professionals—such as economists, industrial and biotech engineers, and chemists—are coming to Chocó. In 2016, Mabel designed a graduate program in partnership with the University of Chocó and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Mabel’s approach is providing a model for sophisticated and sustainable economic development in regions of biodiversity and, as such, is attracting significant governmental and multilateral investment. The Chocó Government has committed a $5 million capital investment to BIOINNOVA for scientific and technological infrastructure, with an additional $4 million coming from other multilateral institutions such as the Global Environment Facility, Inter-American Development Bank, and others.
While consolidating the model she has created in Chocó—innovation center, rainforest-based laboratory, network of local enterprises, and a marketing/trading enterprise—Mabel is looking at how that model can be replicated in other similar regions. In alliance with the University of The Valley and the University of Antioquia she is working on the replication of the innovation center and laboratories and is also in conversations with the governments of other territories of Colombia and the IDB for further replication. Ultimately, she visualizes a region that generates employment and stimulates economic development through unique leadership in the bioeconomy sector, in Colombia but also in Panama, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
Mabel grew up between the jungle and the sea, in Bahia Solano. From a very young age she used to fish and hunt with her father. She learned about plants and nature from her grandparents’ ancestral knowledge. This background, united with her scientific training as a biologist, chemist and medical microbiologist, has allowed her to develop in her personality the wisdom of the ancestral together with the rigorous of the scientific.
Mabel was an active and curious child. At age 4, she decided she wanted to become a doctor and cure cancer after seeing a woman on television with the disease. Around the same age, she started tagging along with her aunt, who taught at a local school. By the end of the year, she could already read, so she continued on in school, where she was always a few years younger than her classmates. Eleven when she started high school, fifteen when she started university, she dealt with the ostracism of being so much younger by starting various clubs and joining other activities.
Pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor, Mabel studied biochemistry and then medicine, but upon starting practice as a doctor, she realized she wasn’t happy in a hospital watching people suffering all the time. She traveled to Mexico to do a Masters in microbiology and then, remembering the woman she saw on television as a young girl, continued on to a PhD in molecular cancer. She wrote her thesis on a fungus in China believed to have the properties to cure cancer, and around which there is a large industry in China. Through her research, she discovered that there were even more powerful species of the fungus in Latin America, so she set up a lab in 2010 to start experimenting and developing a product that successfully demonstrated the ability to prevent cancer cells from multiplying. When a pharmaceutical company offered her a significant amount of money for the product, she realized that if they were offering that much, it meant they were going to make a lot of money from it. She refused to sell it to them, choosing instead to return to Chocó to start a local enterprise that would enable the community to benefit. In the process, she started looking for institutions of research and innovation in the region to work with and couldn’t find any. So she decided to create one herself. In 2012, she launched BIOINNOVA to link traditional and scientific knowledge, turn this knowledge into productive innovation, and support the local population to appropriate that knowledge and innovation for the benefit of economic development.
In 2010, the newspaper El Tiempo selected Mabel in its list of the 100 Colombians with more 'battles won' in the Science and Technology Bright Minds category. That same year she was awarded an international research grant by the program for women in science of L'Oréal and Unesco for the development of her anti-cancer product.