Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

21 March, 2011

Asociacion de Mujeres Agroindustriales de San Luis de Grecia, Alajuela (ASOMAG)

The Asociacion de Mujeres Agroindustriales de San Luis de Grecia, Alajuela (ASOMAG) is comprised of 6 dynamic women dedicated to the production and commercialization of high-quality natural beauty products. Using only freshly picked herbs from their organic farm, the women produce fragrant shampoos, soaps, gel, creams and balms. Among the most common plants grown are rosemary, chamomile, aloe vera, blackwood and indigo. Their office, laboratory and one-hectare plot are nestled on the stunning slopes of the Poas Volcano, in the small town of San Luis, about 15 minutes from the city of Grecia.

ASOMAG bears a long interesting history shaped by incredibly active housewives. In the early 90s, numerous coffee plantations in the high zones of Grecia were destroyed by acid rains produced by Volcano Poas and as a result suffered severe economic losses. In search of more viable income opportunities, citizens of the community, the majority of whom were the wives of farmers, began to organize. In 1992, the first 35 women and men came together and initiated a series of income generating projects ranging from crafting and selling pajamas and stuffed animals for children to handbags for women. Between 1992 and 1995, various projects emerged, but only one proved to be most promising: organic agriculture with a primary focus on medicinal plants. It was an idea that held great possibility as it combined the agricultural expertise of the region with the traditional knowledge of natural remedies applied by mothers and grandmothers. Furthermore, the inspiration behind “going organic” came from one of the founders of ASOMAG, who was adamantly against chemical-based production because her son had been diagnosed with leukemia.

Through immense dedication and self-motivation, ASOMAG was fully formed in 1997 by 13 women, many with either a K-6 or K-12 education. Their success can be largely attributed to the array of partnerships formed with local, national and international organizations. In 1994, several years prior to their official formation, this loosely organized group of women needed to first secure land in order to fulfill their vision of a medicinal plant business. They identified a farmer in the community by the name of Elicier with extra plots to spare. Due to the strong “macho” culture, the women approached his wife and encouraged her to convince her husband to loan them a parcel of his land. They succeeded, but lacked the skills and knowledge of organic production to begin cultivation. Through Elicier’s contacts in the Ministry of Agriculture, they were linked to Yasuhiro, a young Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer who worked tirelessly with the group for nearly 6 years, renewing his contract every 2 years, to make sure the women had the support and resources needed to become a sustainable organization. He thoroughly trained the group in organic agricultural techniques, laying the crucial groundwork necessary for production . Yasuhiro is deeply admired by the ASOMAG women. He is claimed to be the main engine that moved the project forward in its initial stages and gave them the credibility they needed to secure additional funding from outside sources. It is important to note that when the women first began cultivating medicinal plants on their “borrowed” farm, it was riddled with harmful chemicals. Elicier, like many farmers of his day, practiced intense chemical- based farming. Yasuhiro and the women tried their best to cleanse the soil, but the transition from chemical to organic takes approximately 3 years. Nevertheless, organic agriculture was pursued and many lessons were learned.

Between 1997 and 1998, the Instituto de Desarrollo Agrario (IDA), an agency that promotes the fair distribution of land, entered the picture, helping them secure the status of a true “Association” and also a new agricultural parcel. Prior to this point, women were by law prohibited from owning land without their husbands. For the first time, IDA had made it possible for women to become the sole owners of land. The hectare donated, however, was once again filled with chemicals and the group spent another number of years slowly making the transition to organic.

This period was also marked by rapid personal and professional growth through capacitation workshops and donations provided by a variety of institutions that gave the women the confidence and business skills to begin building a business. Workshops on gender, self-esteem and leadership were offered by the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (INA), a national vocational training institute, and business management courses were delivered by FUNDECOOPERACION, a Holland-based organization that provides funding and technical assistance to sustainable development projects. Despite economic limitations, the women managed to pool their resources together to install a small nursery of ornamental and medicinal plants. The income generated from this particular project allowed them to invest in workshops on transforming their medicinal plants into products. Paid workshops on the production of all-natural products were made available by the University of Costa Rica. The same ingredients and recipes that were presented at these workshops are still reproduced to this day, but the concoctions have been perfected over time. As the women demonstrated their expertise and potential success in organic agriculture, medicinal plant production and the all-natural beauty product industry, FUNDECOOPERACION eventually donated funds for the construction of a laboratory and office, and covered the all the costs of their equipment.

Today, ASOMAG is a thriving female microenterprise with a “triple bottom line” business model that takes into consideration the people, profit and the environment. It claims to have the mission of not only selling high-quality products, but more importantly, educating the community about the important uses of medicinal plants and promoting the consumption of organic vegetables to protect the health of Costa Rican families as well as the environment. ASOMAG’s products are called “Yasu,” named in honor of the memorable JICA volunteer who “planted” and “nurtured” the seeds of their growth. Its 20-product line is sold to various “macrobioticas” (i.e. health food stores) in Costa Rica, mainly in Zarcero, Ingresia, Alajuela, San Jose, Heredia and San Carlos. The goods are also being made available by private businesses in Switzerland, Belgium and the United States. This past year, ASOMAG achieved organic certification of its farm and are slowly gaining organic certification for its products by the Ministry of Health. Product certification is costly, ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 per year to maintain its certification. Moreover, each product requires a one-time fee of $300 (cosmetic) to $500 (medicinal) to become certified. Despite these major costs, ASOMAG has managed to fund their entire operation including staff salaries solely through the sales of their products.

The women of ASOMAG have shown to the community and especially to themselves the power of perseverance and the far reaching effects of doing something positive for others. One of the members of the Association is a middle-aged mother of six who endured decades of physical and emotional abuse by her husband. After reaching unimaginable levels of financial and emotional independence, she broke the cycle of violence by leaving him and became committed to taking care of herself and her children on her own. Elecier, skeptical of organic farming in the beginning, witnessed first-hand the many “fruits” it yielded on the plot he loaned to the women and eventually decided to switch his entire farm to organic. Driving along the main road in San Luis towards ASOMAG headquarters, one can see a large sign in big, bold letters proudly promoting Elecier’s organic farm. The community also organizes weekly organic produce fairs. One wonders how much of this community tradition was influenced by the women of ASOMAG.

Achieving gender equity in the business industry is extremely challenging in the developing world. ASOMAG started with a group of 13 highly motivated women and gradually dwindled to the current 6 members. About half of the women lacked spousal support or became drained from having jumped so many hurdles that stood in their path. Nevertheless, the power of women in achieving sustainable development cannot be underestimated. ASOMAG has brilliantly demonstrated how ordinary women, particularly housewives, have creatively leveraged local, national and international resources to sustain and evolve their small communities.

Author: Joan Ngo

NOTE: A directed study comparative analysis paper with further details on this and similar sites is available here: Achieving Sustainable Development Through Women's Entrepreneurship: A Comparative Study of Social Microenterprises in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.