Innovative Lavender Venture has Future Smelling Sweet in Guanajuato
“Think outside the box” is usually no more than the last phrase you hear your boss say before you nod off in a meeting. But in the heart of Mexico’s Bajío region, someone actually thought outside the box, and the result is an innovative, collaborative and successful business venture.
Rancho La Colorada is a humble farming village just outside the small city of Dolores Hidalgo in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Long sustained on subsistence agriculture, the hamlet was hard hit by drought through the early 2000s, and as in many areas of northern Mexico, most of the able-bodied men departed in search of work in other parts of the country or north of the border. But in 2005, representatives of a U.S.-based non-profit called St. Anthony’s Alliance visited La Colorada and came up with the idea of sowing lavender at the location as a complement to the traditional crops of corn, beans and peppers, which brought in little income. Lavender was chosen for its hardy resistance to pests, drought and grazing animals, and for its numerous uses in ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal products. A core group of farmers agreed to participate in the program, and with assistance from St. Anthony’s Alliance and other support, one of the community members was sent to the United States to study lavender production.
The Lavender Project, as it is called, really began to gather steam once Aucencio Domenzain, the farmer who studied lavender production, returned to La Colorada full of enthusiasm and newly acquired knowledge. Mr. Domenzain prepared a manual in Spanish for training his co-workers, St. Anthony’s Alliance helped the group to purchase irrigation equipment and lavender cuttings, and the North Guanajuato Technological University (UTNG) Business Incubator program provided assistance in preparing a business plan and forming a company. By late 2007, they had launched the new venture, called Azul Lavanda, and harvested their first crop of lavender flowers.
Since the Lavender Project set their first plants in the ground, the area under lavender cultivation has expanded to nearly 10 acres. Azul Lavanda is producing lavender-based products including soaps, sachet bags, essential oil, neck pillows and decorative crafts, which are currently being sold in the nearby tourist city of San Miguel de Allende, as well as in states such as Nayarit, Morelos, Queretaro and Quintana Roo. The Lavender Project provides employment to eight community members in agricultural operations, seven local women in the sewing of the sachet bags and five women in the manufacture of the soaps, in addition to three administrative staff and a driver.
Mr. Domenzain, who serves as President of Azul Lavanda, estimates that 21 local families have benefited directly from the jobs created by the project. But the impact of the Lavender Project on Rancho La Colorada is not limited to the number of jobs created. The project and support from St. Anthony’s Alliance has also given rise to a Community Center that has become the auspice for programs to improve education, health, nutrition and transportation in the community. Mr. Domenzain reports that 26 local children are now receiving scholarships to support their schooling.
The Lavender Project has accomplished much in the short time since the idea was first hatched. But the program’s leaders and participants are keen to build on what they have learned and accomplished so far to expand the project’s impact. Mr. Domenzain and his staff are currently testing the distillation of essential oil from Rosemary with an eye toward adding this product to the Azul Lavanda line. The success of the lavender scented soaps has also led them to consider expanding the soap line with the scents of additional locally sourced products such as lime, mint, chocolate and cinnamon.
The highly positive market response to Azul Lavanda’s initial product line is already raising the bar for quality control and product development. This has led Mr. Domenzain to enlist the help of a strategic ally: Dr. Analore Chauvin of the National Genomics Laboratory for Biodiversity (Langebio) in Irapuato, Guanajuato. Dr. Chauvin, an organic and analytical chemist specialized in plant metabolomics, designed a project to analyze the lavender oils being produced at Rancho La Colorada to identify their bioactive compositions. These characteristics are used to determine the quality level of the oils and their suitability for commercial uses such as aromas, cosmetics, high end perfumery or alternative medicine. The laboratory research so far has shown that while Azul Lavanda’s lavender oil currently lacks the qualities necessary for lucrative perfumery, it does have the traits that make it valuable for medicinal and commercial anti-bacterial applications. Once the research is published, it may be the key to new product areas that will keep the Lavender Project going strong into the future.