From Fruit to Fruitful: Capacity Building in Colombia

On the edge of the capital city of Bogotá is Cazuca – home to thousands of refugees who fled the Colombian countryside in search of a better life. Every day hundreds of people flock to the capital; they stand on street corners washing the windows of passing cars, sell bubble gum on the sidewalk, and, sometimes, resort to professions not sanctioned by law or ethics in order to make a living.   

A refugee crisis is nothing new for Colombia. The long-running armed conflict between government, guerrilla, and paramilitary forces vying for power and territory has forced more than 3.5 million people from their homes and seen some 12,000 children recruited as soldiers. 

In 2002, Level Ground Trading, a Canadian Fair Trade organization with its owners’ roots in Colombia, set out to address the problem of poverty and displacement. As a response to the commodity crash that saw the market value of coffee beans reduced to nearly nothing, the group’s original intent was to support small-scale rural farmers. If famers were going to survive, they needed to diversify. Fruit, a natural by-product of Colombia’s rich tropical climate, was coffee’s most practical partner. Small-scale coffee farming at high altitudes in rich soil lands like the Andes offered natural shade through high-growing fruit trees. Out of this recognition, Fruandes dried fruit was born. 

As the idea developed, agronomist and director Giovanni Porras connected the project to his wife Maria’s work with refugees in Cazuca. In wanting to work with one poor demographic, Fruandes was introduced to another whose needs were equally as compelling. 

Women in Cazuca – The Forgotten Population 

Cazuca: a dilapidated collection of tin shacks and dirt roads meandering towards Bogatá. Poverty, crime, and despair have made the slum an urban wasteland. The hills of Cazuca are barren, speckled with the blue plastic tarps that serve as shelter for thousands. Through its middle runs a dirty stream, the runoff from the quarry. For the women, the stream serves as a Laundromat. For the children, it is the community pool.  

A “refugee” community since the 1970s, Cazuca is home to thousands of Colombians who came to escape the lawlessness and violence permeating the countryside. Rural people, many of whom were women forced off of their coffee farms after their husbands had been brutally murdered by guerrilla or paramilitary soldiers, arrived on Bogotá’s doorstep in search of wealth and opportunity. In the countryside, life hung in a delicate balance where random misfortune threatened to destroy lives – there was no government protection from guerrilla and paramilitary activities, no medical services, and no hope for a future.  

Life in Cazuca, however, is difficult. With 75% of the city’s population living in substandard conditions, the poverty and lack of infrastructure create a state of chaos that renders daily life all but unbearable. While infrastructure is a major stumbling block, the biggest impediment is social. Steeped in poverty, the vulnerable community falls prey to gangs, violence, drugs, and prostitution. The women of Cazuca board up their homes at night in order to offer what meagre protection they can from the violent factions that threaten their children. While adults go to work during the day, children are locked inside the house to avoid abduction by gangs. 

Fruandes – Giving Hope to the Women of Cazuca 

What began as a desire to address the hard-hit coffee community transformed into a dual mission to protect the marginalized women struggling to survive in Cazuca. Coming from rural communities where daily work revolves around agriculture, these women are typically uneducated and possess no real marketable skills. 

Giovanni rented a small space in a low income area, and, by 2002, installed a dehydrator that provided work for six women. Currently, there are up to 35 women employed by Fruandes during peak fruit processing periods. During slower times the women share the reduced work week, each taking a shorter day. There is a strong sense of community among the women. They support each other, working toward the common goal of building a better life for their children.  

Fruandes provides its workers with a sustainable wage, vocational training, health care, and education for their children. Three of the original members of Fruandes remain with the organization and have received microcredit loans that allowed for the down payment on a home outside the refugee life of Cazuca. These transactions exemplify one of Fruandes’ key objectives: to provide a way out for the women of Cazuca. These women now enjoy a modest, safe life outside the confines of poverty and despair and are able to offer their children a better future. As the company grows, more women are hired, and so the cycle continues.   

More Than a Simple Economic Transaction 

From a commercial standpoint, Level Ground Trading through Fruandes is interested in dried fruit as a vehicle for small agro growers. As a by-product, however, a great urban social problem is being addressed by hiring disadvantaged women. One organization cannot save everyone. But through greater access to the market, Fruandes’ future is strengthened.