Colombia's Golden Triangle—Biodiverse and Market-friendly

Colombia’s Golden Triangle—which encompasses the area between Bogotá, Medellin and Cali—is harnessing its potential as an area of opportunity for natural ingredients and cosmetics production. Efforts of behalf of the Colombian government, supported by President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, as well as organizational alliances and funding from foundations and foreign investment, are contributing to educational advancement, employment, health care, and infrastructure—transforming both the country and foreign perceptions of it.

With the support of Colombia’s government trade bureau (Proexport), Invest in Bogotá, Invest Pacific, and numerous regional universities, research centers and indigenous community partnerships, the country continues to grow economically, particularly through its investments in industry, technology, intellectual capital and natural habitats.

Developing Colombia’s diverse natural resources, accessible location, modern transportation and strategic port in Buenaventura has enhanced the region’s appeal to a range of multinational corporations, as well as helped spur the development of small, independent companies. Clearly, the goal for the Golden Triangle region is to encourage investment in distribution centers, production facilities, and R&D in natural ingredients, a strong suit of the region.

With a workforce of more than four million people (88% of which are between 15 and 44), 115 universities and 1,361 multinational corporations, Bogotá is poised for economic growth. With its location—just five hours from New York, Mexico City and São Paolo—companies in Bogotá have access to the global market, as well as Colombia’s own $321 billion consumer market. A stable economy, a population of 7.4 million and a GDP of $70.3 billion support the region’s growth, and a diverse economy, with exports, primarily of chemical products and agriculture, continuing to sustain its development.

According to Jaime Mauricio Concha Prada, executive director, the Counsel of Latin American Cosmetics Industries Associations (CASIC), “Colombia has high reserves, low inflation, an international reputation that is changing, and is a top performer in the region in recent years. It is being positioned as an export platform with 11 free trade agreements and an additional 22 free trade agreements being negotiated in 2012.”

This—combined with free trade zone incentives, no import duties and no restriction of sale to domestic markets—has added to the region’s appeal, according to Concha Prada. An emphasis on beauty/cosmetics/personal care (among other product types and industries), a growing pool of skilled labor and increasing harmonization between Latin American countries remain among the key drivers for investment.

Biodiversity and Multinational Presence

As the fifth largest beauty market in Latin America (according to data provided by Proexport), a geographic location placing it between North and South America and with more than 50,000 known plant species (18,000 endemic and 12% found to have medicinal properties), Colombia is poised to leverage its position as a center of biodiversity. Ongoing research into the biodiverse regions of the Amazon and the Caribbean continues to yield scientific breakthroughs. In the Cundinamarca region of Colombia surrounding Bogotá, 3,000 tons of medicinal plants are produced each year, while universities specializing in research in biotechnology and natural ingredients support further study of the properties and potential of these materials, largely for the cosmetics and agri-businesses.

In fact, multinational fragrance/ingredient suppliers with a presence in Bogotá and the Cundinamarca region include Symrise, IFF, Firmenich, Givaudan, CPL Aromas, Iberchem and Lucta, and many of these companies using Bogotá and Cundinamarca as hubs to distribute to Andean, Central American and Caribbean countries. Regional opportunities enhanced by climate, location and access include the Caribbean and the Valle del Cauca—where Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, P&G and Colgate-Palmolive have an established presence.

Numerous institutions of higher learning, bilingual education and unified determination to sustain academic excellence and scientific research are being supported to harness the potential of the country’s natural resources to create effective cosmetics based on abundant plant life—and, beyond that, to conduct genetic research on a variety of native species to ultimately sustain farmers, communities, and future generations with healthy, sustainable crops.

The beauty sector in particular, through its utilization of natural ingredients, has seen notable growth in, among other categories, makeup and hair color, and companies such as Avon, Henkel, Yanbal, Belcorp, P&G and Unilever have established production facilities in the region. These multinationals have made investments of more than $35 million for the expansion of their production plants, and foreign beauty companies represent 75% of the total market. Distribution by Natura, Amway, L’Oréal and Wella also is centered in the region.

Direct selling, one of the most important retail channels, accounts for 35% of sales. Beauty companies utilizing direct selling—largely from catalog sales—include Avon, Yanbal, Natura and Belcorp, and cosmetics sales through direct sales have provided a significant source of income for women in the region. In addition, beauty and personal care continue to thrive as a source of interest for women who value beauty as a way of life, and they seek quality and product diversity and place an emphasis on natural ingredients and health.

Research Focused on Natural Ingredients

In the biodiverse corridor of Medellin/Antioquia, as well as Cali’s Valle del Cauca—where the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) conducts research—advances are being made in plant extracts for a range of uses, from the soursop found in the region’s guanabana fruit, rich in antioxidants and biocides, to the active properties of the Lulo fruit, guayaba and uchuva. The year-round dry climate of the region enhances bio-crop science, tropical soil biology, and the study of genetics and plant species.

At CIAT, studies are being conducted on cassava fruits and other plants to ultimately create pest-resistant crops that will yield healthy fruits for generations to come, grown without the need for pesticides. At the same Cali location, Biotec Corporation, which both creates technologies and methods for wastewater treatment and uncovers uses for subproducts generated by decontamination processes, works to isolate active ingredients that will provide natural sunscreens for skin care products, as well as antioxidants for anti-aging, and other materials that support the skin’s cellular structure. 

According to Myriam Sanchez Mejia, director, Biotec Corporation, “The present government has a policy that fits with Biotec’s interest in the conversion of rural areas. This will improve the quality of life of rural communities, while adding value with natural plant materials.” Biotec collaborates with CIAT and other alliances to support their mutual growth and shared mission.

Claudia Betancur, executive director of BioIntropic, an alliance of six universities, a biofactory for in vitro production and a technological park that works to promote innovation in the biodiversity and biotechnology fields in Colombia, discussed the efforts of the research groups that include the University of Antioquia (in Medellin), Ecoflora and other institutions focused on bio-agrotechnology and bio-ingredients for cosmetics, foods and textiles, as well as efforts in bioenergy and bio-environmental technology. Ingredients with a growing presence or applications in the cosmetics include chontaduro, açai, borojo, ipecacuana, jagua, seje, heliconias, orquideas and microalgae—offering functions and benefits such as anti-aging, UV protection, antimicrobial activity and antioxidant properties.

At the University of Antioquia, Lucia Atehortúa, coordinator of the biotechnology program, focuses on synthesizing nanoparticles for cosmetic usage and leads a team of 30 biologists, chemists and environmental engineers working on biodiversity, biotechnology and bio-industry.

Both corporate and government sponsorships sustain the program, which explores urban bio-agriculture, cell culture production to produce ingredients in quantity, and the creation of encapsulation techniques for cosmetic and pharmaceutical usage. 

Ultimately, the plant cells Atehortúa and team are cultivating will enable them to reproduce plants with nutritional and functional value, notably in skin care, for future applications. “You can create orange juice without oranges by bio-creating the cells,” says Atehortúa, putting the work in more universal terms. “This is particularly important because climate change is [impacting the availability of plants].”

Uncovering the potential of Heliconias oleosa, a species related to banana, is one initiative underway at the university, and it is of special interest for cosmetics. Atehortúa described how the leaves of the plant produce oil with antioxidant properties, which has proven effective for innovation in skin care products—and is also used as a food preservative. The chontaduro (peach palm) fruit, already formulated in a variety of cosmetic products, is also being studied, and the group works with Stevia rebaudiana for applications in cosmetics, microalgae for natural blue pigments, and microalgae polysaccharides for anti-aging and cell repair. Atehortúa cited Sederma, which is working to extract cells from natural plants, for their work with cacoa and orange to extract anti-aging compounds for cosmetics.

Fungi, chitosan aromes from bay leaf and pineapple, and enzymes from specific plants are also proving to have growing applications in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. 

In the Antioquia region of Medellin, Ecoflora, a 13-year old agro-business that originally developed insect control products based on plant extracts, utilizes natural ingredient extracts for cosmetics. Its agro- and non-agro businesses are based on the study of natural ingredients, with each Ecoflora company having its own team to focus on added value for color, dyes, pigments, oils, waxes, natural surfactants and exfoliating agents.

According to Juan Fernando Botero, president and CEO, Ecoflora’s strengths include 11 successful home care brands, resource access in the region, partnerships with universities and indigenous communities in line with its commitment to creating sustainable supply chains in communities located in the biodiverse regions of Colombia. (The organization works with the Union for Ethical Biotrade and recently received the National Prize for Technology in Colombia). The group’s development of the pigment Cosme Blue—derived from the jagua fruit (Genipa americana), which has been used for centuries by the indigenous groups of Colombia as a temporary dye pigment for body paint—is the outcome of one such commitment to a sustainable supply chain. 

The jagua comes from the Choco region of the Colombian rain forest, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, which has a long rainy season. This has enabled its sustainable growth and makes it highly competitive for use in the U.S. and European markets. Utilizing it for Cosme Blue, Ecoflora has developed a safe and non-staining process for colors, applicable in hair dye and cosmetic formulas—as well as textiles and foods.

In addition to jagua, the group cultivates the fruit of the Sapindus saponaria, or soap nut tree, which yields a naturally occurring surfactant for use in cosmetic products, including shampoos and body and facial washes. Botero noted that for developing supply chains to source science-backed, sustainable materials and communicating their properties is important for the welfare of communities, as well as for enabling the group to be competitive worldwide. 

Regional Beauty Brands Leverage Unique Regional Ingredients; Relationships

In addition to the presence of multinationals, regional brand owners are also developing original cosmetic products that utilize the natural ingredients of the region, providing the ingredient efficacy and appeal that customers seek. Waliwa Amazonian Natural Products, co-founded by CEO Myriam Moya Suta and marketing manager Marta Janneth Neira, markets beauty products that complement traditional knowledge with technology, combining high performance with natural ingredients. The Waliwa facial care-based line of products was created with the European market in mind, while the Piudali brand, a “celebration of abundance and the natural environment,” is designed with the U.S. market in mind. Both are based on the natural plant resources found in various regions of Colombia—including the Amazon, the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Paramo (high mountains) and the Andes.

Waliwa sources biodiverse plants found in a region inhabited by the uitotos, members of an Amerindian nation that inhabits the Colombo-Peruvian Amazon basin. More than 41,000 different plants in the region make it a prime source of cosmetic ingredients.

The company’s development program creates social inclusion and benefits for the community, which helps produce the ingredients by cooking the fruit in their malocos (community houses) and working with the oil. Harvesting and preparation require great care, and company founders are conscious of their impact, being careful to not cut trees or disturb the environment. 

In addition to work within the Amazon, Waliwa also sources in the Andes and the páramo—an ecosystem of the regions above the continuous forest line and below the permanent snow line located in the northern Andes, featuring vegetation composed mainly of shrubs and grasses. And apart from working with indigenous groups, the company works with women’s groups and farm communities to source plants and fruits, and produce products such as Amazon Balm for Lush Lips, a hydrating lip treatment packaged in an Andean Nogal nut, considered sacred by the Muisca people, handpicked by local women working for fair trade wages.

In this way, Waliwa continues to create a circle of trust with the local communities, many of which had been taken advantage of in the past by rubber companies and other developers—and as Neira emphasized, trust is the basis for the relationship with the local communities.

A Sustainable Future

Based on the work of various academic institutions, including the University of the Andes, where the Atomic Force Microscope enhances analytical capabilities, and work on micro and nanotechnology, as well as genetic research on plant life takes place; the University of Antioquia, where fungi and natural plant actives are explored for use and commercialization in skin care and health care projects; Biotec and CIAT, for cell structure evaluation and enhancement with natural sources like soursop, guanabana and cassava; and the efforts of BioIntropic and Ecoflora, to create natural pigments for cosmetics and foods, research into the biodiversity of the Golden Triangle continues to point to a prosperous future for the region.

With Colombia, one of the world’s leading exporters, and a government working to realize the potential of the country through academic excellence and biodiversity initiatives, companies may indeed benefit from partnerships with local ingredient suppliers, as well as institutions of higher learning, to harness the potential of ingredients for beauty product formulators, manufacturers and marketers. A significant natural ingredient storehouse, strategic location, unique culture and business climate support its appeal for future investment in cosmetics and personal care.

Nancy Jeffries is a contributing editor for GCI magazine, covering the industry from her New York vantage. Jeffries has been in the publishing business for more than 20 years. Her introduction to the cosmetics and personal care industry began as editor of GCI magazine from 1997–2000. [email protected]

More in Consumers & Markets