Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2019   |   Colombia

Olga Yaneth Bocarejo Buitrago

Olga eradicates rural poverty by creating a globally new idea of a bank where waste is exchanged for food. In that way she offers access to food to the poorest population, including school children,…
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This description of Olga Yaneth Bocarejo Buitrago's work was prepared when Olga Yaneth Bocarejo Buitrago was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019.


Olga eradicates rural poverty by creating a globally new idea of a bank where waste is exchanged for food. In that way she offers access to food to the poorest population, including school children, and simultaneously cleans the environment from waste. By doing this she is bringing bottom-up development which empowers people’s dignity and self-reliance.

The New Idea

In order to provide resources like food and products to poor rural communities, Olga has developed the first global bank that looks exactly like a normal one, yet is an innovation in the region. It teaches women and children to transform garbage and other products that could seem worthless into tradable goods that not only guarantee them food but also products for agriculture. Thanks to this, she reduces the cost and the shortage of food products in rural areas of Colombia. Olga also develops products and instruments of financial inclusion like food insurance, food loan, health insurance. All that is paid by collected waste, which has a drastic impact on the reduction of poverty.

The traditional food bank offer an assistance program and is a system created to collect food and distribute it; they do not empower people, and it is not a real bank in a financial way. Olga created a real bank with financial instruments to offer services and products to rural, impoverished people. The people in these communities live on less than 2 dollars per day, and they are out of the distribution food system, most of them are isolated. Olga is not making distribution of food as a traditional food-bank: she is creating new capabilities, employs with a systemic organization and is changing the mindset of the communities. Olga is creating social fabric, and employs with gender inclusion.

To be inclusive, Olga created the first bank for kids. She opens bank accounts for the younger generations, training them in basic economic to include them in the financial economy; in this way she has an impact on saving culture and on financial inclusion and inversion from very young ages.

As a result, Olga mitigates poverty, educates vulnerable rural populations, restores dignity, contributes to food safety and changes the negative perception of garbage into something positive and develops socio-productive entrepreneurships that create jobs based on the transformation of waste into products that she contributes to develop.

The Problem

According to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE, for its acronym in Spanish) in Colombia, from a population of 49,564,411 people, in 2017 at least 8.3 million were classified as poor, which represents 17% of the population.

One of the main causes of poverty is the lack of income from which a lot of serious malnutrition problems are generated. In 2017, the unemployment rate was 8.6%, according to the DANE, and the rate of chronic child malnutrition in 2015 was 10%, according to National Survey of the Nutritional Situation, which highlight the financial exclusion that maintains the residents of this rural sectors in a state of vulnerability. They are far from urban areas and municipal centers and suffer unfulfilled basic needs, such as a deficiency in the quality of nutrition, inadequate solid waste management, low self-esteem and a noticeable resignation level. In addition, in Colombia’s rural areas the proper solid waste disposal is nearly nonexistent, along with a scarce culture from the communities about the value of garbage.

The Strategy

When Olga came to the rural area, she faced serious problems for her survival. She was determined to find a way to eradicate poverty in her community, and understood that there was a chance with the solid garbage that contaminated the environment. In many cases, garbage was buried or burned and, on top of that, the waste collection systems didn’t work in those communities. After going through domestic work, she gathered various women and created her first entrepreneurship: canteens for children and elders, which failed because it was based on the welfare model. After other failed attempts, Olga did independent research and encountered the topic of barter, which led her to create the first Bancalimentos of Colombia in 2018 ( She had a group of seven people, plus voluntary work from university students who helped with counseling in areas like nutrition, social work and environmental management.

Given the precarious situation of the community and influenced by her own experience with childhood poverty, Olga realized that changing food for waste wasn’t enough, so in 2017 she started developing financial instruments where inhabitants could save and then exchange those savings for food. Further concerned by child malnutrition, in 2018 she developed “Bancakid”, similar to the one for adults, to provide food and supplements for kids from the age of eight. During these moments she and the University created protein bars based on the nutritional shortage of Colombian kids. She also began educating kids in her Bank, where there is a special place for them and they are attended by young people; she gives them their own bank card and includes them in the financial system.

Olga realized that when pregnant women from rural zones gave birth, their babies were already born with malnutrition problems, which led her to diversify her financial instruments. In 2018, she included pregnant women through “Gestahorro”, a financial product that allows expectant mothers and breastfeeding mothers to take a loan with Bancalimentos to guarantee an adequate and wholesome alimentation while they’re unable to work. They can then repay the loan through solid waste saving and crop residues; at the same time Olga worked on a program that she developed with other enterprises that gives a mother a deposit in their bank card and thanks to that the baby receives a weekly package with a balanced diet to ensure an adequate nutrition for a 1000 days. Olga gives the mothers the formation of recyclers as environmental managers and thanks to that they can work receiving the garbage from the enterprise and charge their card in Bancalimentos.

In 2019 Olga invented the food banking line “Prestalimentos” where farmers can obtain food and other agricultural products, agricultural inputs, essential medicines, solar lamps, among other things, that are interest free, paid with collected waste and crop waste. She also created the program “Mercadoseguro” which is a nutritional insurance that can be obtained with collected waste and gets paid with food. It covers sick leave, hospitalization, maternity leave, among other accidents.

For her replication in rural areas, Olga has developed the “Modelo de Puntos de Abastecimiento Rural” (Model of Rural Supply Points), a kind of social small organization located in strategic locations where a larger quantity of families can benefit from. There she creates a cooperative with women from the area, who are the ones who manage Bancalimentos. For sustainability, each Bancalimentos receives the collected solid waste and these are sold as raw material to companies and to associations who transform plastic, cardboard, Tetra Pak, polystyrene, or cloth. Olga also encourages other socio-productive entrepreneurships with associations and foundationsith women from the area, for example, “Expomas” in Cundinamarca. There with textile waste they create furniture, cushions, beds for dogs, furniture for cats, and they redirect the money and the capital to the young women who work there. She created another company called “Mis Chilos” foundation, in Fómeque, based on circular economy with women, that use textile waste to make clothes, scourers, etc. She also partnered with the “Una Botellita de Amor” (“a Bottle of Love”) foundation, who uses snack wrappers waste to make Snack Wrappers Blocks and houses with textile agglomerations.

Each Bank gives USD $580 to the woman that manages the bank. This is income that they would not have any other way of earning. 50% of the profits are reinvested (as required in the organization’s constitutional statutes) for installation and subsidies of new Bancalimentos and the other 50% is invested to generate insurance services such as: "Gestahorro" "Prestalimentos" "Mercadoseguro" and Bancakids.

Bancalimentos was awarded membership into the United Nations’ 2018 “Business Call to Action”, and as part of this award, they provided impact measurement methodology. Olga also counts on with the alliance of the National University of Colombia and has agreements with other universities like the National University where she works with an interdisciplinary research group to measure social, environmental and economic impact, document processes and improve the strategy to generate income from solid waste. She has partnerships with other companies like Bansat or Hispasat, satellite internet providers, who run tests on their rural spots to obtain connectivity in an economical way. The National Planning Department introduced it to the UN as one of the organizations that contributes the most to the Millennium Development Goals.

In 2018, she had an impact in 8 localities of Colombia: Zetaquira, Ramiriquí, Fomeque, Ubaque, Soacha, Bosa, El Banco Magdalena, and on more than 15 million inhabitants. She has helped about 600 pregnant women, 320 people have obtained nutritional insurance through her programs, 860 kids participate in Bancakids, and about 3,000 adults have been denominated environmental partners; including beneficiaries’ families, she reaches about 12, 000 people. During 2019, she started a project in Guajira with the support of the CAF (the Development Bank of Latin America), and based on the results from this model the government would be willing to support her replicating the project in other municipalities.
Olga’s vision consists of inhabitants coming back to their birthplace. She is dedicating 100% of her time to achieve her dream. She plans that by 2021 30 rural communities will have been transformed into developing areas. She explains: “A couple of years ago I was asked if I believed in the distribution of wealth, and I answered that I didn’t need the distribution of wealth, but rather income generation. There was no need to take from the rich to give to the poor, but [instead to] generate investment.”

The Person

Olga was a young mother, a woman with a rural background that went through significant experiences of poverty. She had a close-up experience with the suicide of many women who didn’t have a way of feeding their children. Olga only did two years of high school that she couldn’t finish because she had domestic responsibilities, including looking after her youngest siblings. As an anecdote she narrates that when she swept the house where she lived, she hid the waste under the furniture and then her mother told her: “I wish food came up as the garbage she accumulated under the furniture”, which was a phrase that marked her life. At 18, she became autodidactic and started to read books about economy and marketing, and from there she turned into an avid reader of these subjects. Before Bancalimentos, because of the lack of resources the family was facing, she worked as a maid outside of her town; it was hard so she quit after a month and went back to her town and this led her to create her first entrepreneurial endeavor. Olga gathered various women and created the “Caritas Nuestras” foundation, through which she made recycled objects to sell along with a community kitchen; however, this project failed because it was based on a welfare model. She didn’t stop there and later decided to undertake another project, a cooperative called Pollo Granja, a socio productive project to raise and sell chicken. Nevertheless, it failed because it had management problems, even though it had good profitability.

Being autodidactic she read books and facing her failure situation that didn’t get her out of her precariousness, this time with experience and with the lessons learned, Olga read something about trading, which leads her to trade food for waste, and this is how she created her organization Bancalimentos in 2015.

Olga has won several prizes and awards. Between 2015 and 2016 she won, in the two consecutive years, the 2015 Ventures Award for best initiative against poverty; the Yunus Social Business prize; the 2016 best social entrepreneurship of The Boston Consulting Group, and according to Latinoamerica Verde, she ranked 13th in the ranking of the 500 most sustainable companies.

In 2016, Olga suffered an attack because of social rejection that cost her a few months of exile along with her children, and after two years, it led her to relocate the company to Ramiriquí, Boyacá, in seven venues that work as small organizations. When she started Bancalimentos she had nowhere to live. She went from having nothing to selling daily 18 million Colombian pesos of merchandise. Olga dreams about transforming rural communities in growth poles: “I will get productive inhabitants and I will eliminate economic injustice for the poorest who have to pay more for goods and services”, she claims.

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