Positive Deviant: Germán Mejía Duque
Company: Cocotech
Location: Moñitos, Córdoba, Colombia


“Everything negative that could have happened, happened, but it never destroyed our will to continue forward with the company.”
 


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German Mejía learned a great deal about the technical ins-and-outs of agriculture in his two decades working in the production and exportation of flowers in Colombia. However, it could be said that his most valuable lesson learned didn’t have to do with any technical expertise -- instead it was a transformative idea that came to him one day. It was an idea that united his expertise with an unfinished life-long dream. German tell us more:

During those two decades in floriculture, I had the opportunity to explore the hydroponic production of flowers utilizing fiber substrates of coconut. And I realized that the shell of this fruit possessed an incredible potential to improve the performance of flower production, as well as the production of vegetables and other plants.

Excited about the many uses and benefits of this material, I remembered the trips to the Caribbean Coast that I took as a kid and the numerous coconut farms that I had seen spread throughout the coastal region of Córdoba. I hadn’t returned to the region in decades, so I decided to make a trip. What I saw opened my eyes to the incredible opportunity that it offered.

In order to prevent snakes from nesting local communities were throwing away the coconut shells, tossing them into water sources, the ocean, or burning them completely -- a practice with severely contaminates the air. The raw material that I needed was surprisingly abundant and yet was being discarded profusely and in a way that degraded the local environment.

What’s more, the communities there lived in great poverty. The poorest lived in houses with walls of plastic or made from tin cans, they didn’t have access to drinkable water, electricity, basic sanitation, nor functional spaces to cook. Seeing these conditions for the first time through adult eyes was impactful. Remembering a dream of my youth when I had told my mother I wanted to be a doctor and at least once a week treat the poor without charging them, I decided to finally put this dream to action. And Cocotech was born.

Already with the seed of an idea to create a company with social and environmental purpose, German then identified his leverage points in the market which would further demonstrate the potential for this company:  

Social/Environmental

  • 67% of the Caribbean Colombian population live in poverty (and 17% in extreme poverty).
  • Agricultural crop waste causes environmental problems for these communities.

Business opportunity

  • In the agricultural sector, producers suffer from issues of crop performance, causing great uncertainty in their ultimate yield.
  • Textile and furniture industries lack biodegradable materials that do not damage the environment.

The transformation of these opportunities (social, environmental and business) would take form in the production and sale of products developed from coconut shells. Thus, in 2013, Germán began production, achieving his first sales that very year.

 Coconut shells

Coconut shells

 Production area

Production area

 Coconut chips

Coconut chips

With those first steps, he began to also materialize his vision to create social impact through his commitment to fair work practices in the communities where he realized his operations, mostly in Moñitos, Córdoba.

We were offering formal employment in a region and sector in which informal employment was most common. In fact, today we still are the only company in Moñitos that offers formal employment. We especially focus on giving opportunities to single mothers.

Additionally, we offer programs such as: capacity building, basic hygiene, rainwater collection, home gardens, technical assistance to improve the performance of their home plots, and more.

We maintain the profound conviction that social change is possible. For this reason, we made our company into a vehicle that achieves this in a disruptive way, bringing hope where before it didn’t exist. We remain determined to continue deepening and expanding our impact as our company grows.

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His focus on creating not only a profitable business, but also a socially/environmentally impactful one, has opened doors to compete in (and in some cases, win) various contests and scholarships. Cocotech was a finalist in the Innpulsa Colombia competition, winner of the Corporación Ventures sustainability prize, and was selected to participate in the accelerator program of Agora Partnerships.

Of course, the path hasn’t always been easy. German and his team have faced enormous problems of distribution due to, for example, bridge collapse along their usual routes, administrative issues related to robberies, and grave problems related to production due to climate change. However, German emphasizes that any entrepreneur faces difficulties and obstacles that can cause failure. And it is these moments which demand of the entrepreneur his or her strength as a human being:

There aren’t formulas for success. The difference in achieving success or not depends on tools, resources, the ability to negotiate, resourcefulness, empathy, and many other things that are part of the complexity of the human being. Resilience, -- not having fear of failure and knowing how to overcome adversity -- courage, patience, and a warrior spirit are some of the qualities often found in the DNA of a successful entrepreneur.

German continues discovering these qualities in himself as he follows the entrepreneurial path with Cocotech. With his team he is currently developing new technologies to refine his production processes so that they are more efficient yet still produce high quality outputs. He is also searching for investors who in turn are looking to bet on a profitable, impactful company such as Cocotech in order to help it grow, and with it the impact that it generates.

What would German say to the readers of this blog? We asked him, and he said:

I don’t have the knowledge necessary to give advice, but I think that, as others have inspired me without intending to, I also hope that there is someone who, when they come across our work, may also feel motivated to act in accordance with a similar life philosophy.

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To get in touch with German, please write to: gmejia@cocotech.com.co