February 7, 2024

Making a clean start

In Santa Marta, Colombia, six women are innovating their way to a better life by creating and selling their own range of environmentally friendly cleaning products.

María Alejandra Torres is from a family displaced by violence. She was born in the Colombian city of El Banco, but when armed groups killed one of her cousins, her father took his family to Venezuela in search of a safer life. From the age of five Torres grew up on a Venezuelan farm. She married young and gave birth to a daughter in her teens, juggling motherhood with farm work. After the relationship with the girl’s father broke down, she struggled along as a street painter in Caracas. Torres met and married another Colombian émigré, and the couple had two sons together. Five years ago, their youngest child needed medical treatment.
Unable to obtain the care they needed in Venezuela, the family made the decision to return to Colombia, moving to her husband’s family home in Vereda El Mosquito outside the coastal city of Santa Marta.

Map of South America highlighting Santa Marta/Colombia.
Portraits of: María Alejandra Torres (Association President), Mayerlin De La Cruz (Association Treasurer), Meyvilis Cantillo (Associate),
Porträt of: María Alejandra Torres (Association President), Mayerlin De La Cruz (Association Treasurer), Meyvilis Cantillo (Associate),

With her son’s health improving, Torres was determined to turn her own life around. Despite her children’s teasing, she completed her high school diploma and obtained a technical bachelor’s degree. And she looked for better work. It wasn’t easy to find. Vereda El Mosquito is a poor community. Like Torres, many of its citizens have fled violence or poverty elsewhere. She took a job cleaning in a school, and became involved with a short-lived egg-production business.


In May 2022, Torres found the break she was looking for. She joined several other local women with similar backgrounds in the Empowered Women Association (EWA), a BASF-supported social enterprise that has developed a range of environmentally friendly cleaning products targeted at commercial users, especially the hotels and hospitality businesses dotted along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Portraits of: Delfina Bolaño (Associate), Jurleinis De La Hoz (Association Vice-President), Marta Cecilia Valencia (Associate)
Porträt of: Delfina Bolaño (Associate), Jurleinis De La Hoz (Association Vice-President), Marta Cecilia Valencia (Associate)

When EWA incorporated itself as a formal organization, her colleagues elected Torres as Association President. “I don’t just want a job,” she says. “I like to learn. I like to go out and talk to people. I want to get ahead.” In August 2023 the women opened a store in Vereda El Mosquito, which acts as headquarters, warehouse and retail premises for the growing business. At launch, the EWA’s product range included a multipurpose cleaner, dishwashing soap, laundry detergent and a grease remover. Supply contracts with individual hotels and hospitality groups are in negotiation.


From the project’s start to where it is today, it’s been a long path. Not everything went smoothly. Some women have left the group to pursue other work, but those who remain are committed for the long term. “I say, what is easy goes quickly,” says Torres. “It has been hard work, but we have learned so much in this project, and I believe one hundred percent that it has changed our lives for the better.”

The Empowered Women Association is proudly supported by BASF Colombia:

In the early days of the project, BASF experts led training sessions, and assisted with the formulation and branding of the new cleaning products. As the women moved from planning to production, BASF continued to help by providing a key ingredient – it’s environmentally friendly Soluprat liquid soap – and identifying a contract manufacturer with the capacity to make the first commercial batches of their products.

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