Growth and opportunity in an evolving industry at Alexandra Farms

By Teresa Schaffer

For more than 60 years, the flower industry in Bogotá, Colombia, has empowered women to be independent, self-sufficient leaders in their communities and their homes. Before the 1960s, it was nearly unheard of that women could work anywhere other than at home, taking care of children and family, until agriculturalists realized the prime growing opportunities of the savanna’s temperate climate. The lives of women in the Bogotá savanna and their communities would be forever changed.

“When flower farms came around, women suddenly became the owners of their destinies,” says Alexandra Farms president Jose Azout. His company, which sits atop the fertile soil surrounded by the Andes Mountains in Bogotá, is the largest grower of garden roses in the world and proudly embraces the inclusion of women in all facets of the business.

women working at Alexandra Farms

Export and New Land

In 1961, under the John F. Kennedy Administration, the Alliance for Progress was created as a bridge to connect the U.S. and Latin American countries to collaborate economically. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that Colombia’s proximity to the U.S., convenient year-round growing opportunities, fertile soil and abundant water supplies made the country a prime partner in nontraditional agriculture and exportation.

Floriculturist Edgar Wells was keen to share his passion for cut flowers and was intent on making Colombia an exporter of the distinctive varieties of the area. Eventually, after becoming inspired by the shocking wholesale prices of flower bouquets in New York City, Wells founded the first cut flower export business in Colombia, with its first shipment arriving in Miami in October 1965.

After the exportation of cut flowers from Colombia proved to be a real boon for the country’s economy, associations were created to organize and maintain the industry and its rapid growth. One early creation, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (Asocolflores), was created in 1973 to “represent, promote and strengthen the competitiveness of Colombian floriculture in Colombia and its main markets,” and the organization continues to support the industry today. Not only does Asocolflores promote the market, it also contributes to developing and educating environmental aspects, social responsibility and peace-seeking programs that support farm workers, their families and their communities.

A New Age of Agriculture

Before the production and exportation of cut flowers in Bogotá, the savanna was already rich agriculturally in crops like potatoes and grasses for grazing dairy cattle. Men held the role of moneymaker, managing these farms and ultimately leaving women at home to tend to the children and their households.

“Men would leave work on Fridays with their paychecks and go to a bar, drink all afternoon and evening, leave the bottles on the tables, and go home and sleep. And the wives had no options,” Azout explains, noting men didn’t always treat their wives kindly when they returned home.

Economically, the small towns throughout the savanna in Bogotá were made up of a handful of what were considered necessities, clearly focused toward male-dominated communities. According to Azout, nothing more than bars with pool tables, brothels, a bank, a police station, a central plaza and a mayor’s office made up the typical layout in every small farming town—an image mirrored throughout Bogotá.

Then came the introduction of flower farms, which didn’t resonate with men culturally. “They weren’t as interested in getting involved in the flower industry; it wasn’t ‘masculine’ enough, and they were already employed,” Azout says. This was beneficial for women who were unemployed, impoverished and unable to previously pursue any kind of ownership. And it benefited the flower farms that needed a workforce for a quickly evolving industry.

Introducing women into the workforce was a turning point socially and economically. Cookie-cutter simplistic towns flourished with new businesses shaped by women: shops catering to women, beauty, children and cuisine began peppering the towns, Azout says. “When flower farms came around and women started getting paychecks, the women were empowered and became owners of their destinies.”

women working sorting roses

A Membership

Today at Alexandra Farms, 55 percent of the more than 400 employees are women, and approximately half of those women are heads of households, many with children to support. While most of them work on the farms as general staff, 18 women hold executive positions, highlighting the importance of providing opportunities on every level of the business.

Unlike generations before them, women in the past few decades have not only the freedom to hold jobs and make livings but also a chance to grow in their careers. At Alexandra Farms, staff members are encouraged to pursue further education to perform their duties, fully funded by the company. “We’ve financed two or three executives to help them learn English and a few agronomists and supervisors to learn more about their fields,” Azout says.

And outside of their careers and roles at the farm? Azout says it’s just as important to ensure his workers have support in every aspect of their well-being and their families’. That’s why the company also employs an in-house psychologist and social worker, provides frequent opportunities to meet with doctors and dentists at the farm, subsidizes 50 percent of lunches to support healthy eating, and provides family counseling and educational training for personal growth, among other benefits.

But the company’s assistance doesn’t stop at the workplace. Alexandra Farms’ human resources director, Emilsen Cubillos, says her department will meet with employees at their homes periodically to guide housekeeping, cleanliness and general home maintenance. The company provides numerous avenues for employees to reach out for help, but community outreach is just another personal chance for employees to ask for help or request resources.

The proactive company action and open communication with employees have proved to make life simpler for the women on the farm and create a pay-it-forward effect on the others around them. “We’ve helped our employees deal with anger management, relationships and family matters,” Azout says. “We certainly helped the community because by helping them, we’ve helped others. It’s a multiplying effect.”

There was a proud moment for the human resources team when 15 employees approached them about an issue they had obtaining homes through a particular company after submitting down payments but receiving no further information. The Alexandra Farms legal personnel pursued the company on behalf of those employees and successfully prompted the contractor to fulfill their obligations, putting those 15 employees into homes.

Being a valued part of a fast-moving industry provides comfort and stability to women who depend on the support of their employers to provide for their families, and the benefits are just extra incentives to being a part of the team.

Evolving Industry

As the years roll by in Colombia’s evolving fresh flower industry, farms have made great strides in how they affect global change economically, environmentally and socially. The foundation and growth of this one industry alone has changed the blueprint for women and their entire communities throughout Bogotá and Medellín (the second-largest flower-producing area in Colombia) and has changed the dynamics forever.

Alexandra Farms takes great care to ensure that the women on the farms are respected, appreciated, and equipped to grow with their personal and professional pursuits. The women working on the farms are dedicated and passionate about being a part of the company and place their appreciation into the garden roses that fuel creativity and joy across the globe.

It’s the opportunity female ancestors dreamed of the freedom to shape the world and create a life made just for her.

The Women Behind the “Flowers of Colombia”: A Story of Dignity, Work and Opportunities

Excerpted from information published by Asocolflores, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters, and other sources.

Colombia’s flower-growing sector employs more than 200,000 formal jobs, 110,000 of which are direct jobs and 90,000 of which are indirect jobs. Sixty percent of the direct jobs (66,000) are carried out by women, and 49 percent of those (more than 32,000) are heads of households. These women play a significant role in the family and productive structure in Colombia, not only as generators of well-being at home but also as contributors to the country’s GDP. Women’s roles go beyond being fundamental; women are the “core” of the whole process. The love and dedication with which they work every day is reflected in the beauty of each flower sold around the world.

The cut-flower industry in Colombia is the largest employer of women in the country’s rural areas, and in addition to abiding by the guarantees provided by law, it provides additional welfare programs, which vary from one company to company but range from child care to early detection of breast cancer by doctors who visit the farms. The industry also affords women with opportunities to provide formal educations to their children and to buy their own homes, allowing them, through their own economic independence, to live without violence in their homes.

Flor de Estes Worker
Flor de Estes Worker

Domestic violence against women in Colombia has been a part of the country’s heretofore male-dominated culture for decades and comprises both physical and psychological abuse; however, significant forward strides have been made since the inception of the flower-growing industry in Colombia, including the enactment of laws that have criminalized such acts and the provision of safe houses and counseling for victims, which is often offered at the flower farms. One of Asocolflores’ initiatives, “Cultivating Peace in the Family,” which was started in 1998, has presented workshops at the farms to train workers on how to diffuse conflict situations before they escalate, and over the years, tens of thousands of farm workers—women and men—have attended these workshops.

For nearly 30 years, a variety of laws have enabled Colombian women to file charges of domestic violence and obtain protection orders. Unfortunately, though, the long-held public opinion in Colombia—and other Central American and South American countries—has been that domestic violence should be treated as a “private” matter that should be solved without legal punishment; therefore, the laws have been rarely enforced. In fact, in one study, 64 percent of public officials in Colombia said that if asked to solve a case of intimate partner violence, they would encourage the parties to reconcile. That said, changes for the better have occurred in this unimaginable reality lived by so many Colombian women, and those advancements are largely a result of the jobs and support provided by the country’s flower farms, which have given these women the ability and confidence to make other choices.

As Augusto Solano, president of Asocolflores, the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters, states, “The process of empowering our rural women begins with offering them formal working conditions that not only grant them financial independence to escape from domestic violence situations but also allow them to consider worthy life projects that they can develop for themselves, their children and their communities.”

women working with carnations

The stories of the women behind the “Flowers of Colombia” brand ( are those of empowerment, resilience and pride. At all Colombian flower farms, it is common to hear the stories of the women who, thanks to their work, have been able to educate their children and live with them away from the violence of the past and with the satisfaction of a job well done.