The Puerto Rican entrepreneur was recently recognized by the United Nations for her sustainable business practices.
How does one create a successful business that honors your roots, supports your community, and is also environmentally sustainable? Look no further than the mountains of Jayuya in Puerto Rico.
There you will find María Villalobos, who was recently chosen by the United Nations as one of the top five finalists of Latin America and the Caribbean of the WE Empower UN SDG Challenge, “a global competition for women social entrepreneurs who are advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals and inspiring entire communities to act to create the world we want by 2030,” the organization’s website says.
Along with her husband Jesús Martes, Villalobos founded Amasar, an eco-friendly agribusiness that sells gluten-free flour products made from pana (breadfruit.)
The past personal and professional experiences of Villalobos and Martes planted the seed that eventually sprouted into Amasar. Villalobos is a microbiologist and was also a science and math teacher, while Martes is a chemical engineer.
Both Villalobos, who is from Ciales, and Martes, who is from Jayuya, understood from a young age the importance of agriculture as their families both had coffee and fruit farms.
The birth of their three children was one of the first experiences that created awareness in Villalobos about the importance of making top-quality food products accessible in Puerto Rico.
“I have always cared a lot about the nutrition of my family. My children are already 20-something years old, but at that time it was difficult to find something that tasted good but was nutritious,” Villalobos told Floricua.
Years later the family moved to Milan, Italy, for Martes’ work. There they could find most of the fruits and vegetables used in Puerto Rican cuisine, such as avocados and plantains. However, they were never able to find breadfruit.
“Ever since, we have said that we are going to start an agricultural, agro-business, agro-industrial business, but that is sustainable,” Villalobos said.
In 2016, Villalobos and Martes started a business that is committed to their community and environment by making products from the crops of Puerto Rican farmers.
With their mission to provide socially sustainable and responsible food, they created a line of products made with pana, which is considered a superfood.
“My initial mission is [to provide] healthy food for Boricuas. That is the challenge. Many Puerto Ricans are not aware of the importance of what we eat. The ancient Greeks said that your food is your medicine and that your medicine is your food,” the entrepreneur said.
For Villalobos, it is also important to give back to their community. Amasar supports local farmers, especially women in the industry, and makes it a priority to pay them a fair price.
“Growing up in agriculture, it was sad for me to see that my dad was paid a penny for a banana. I saw it and couldn’t understand it. I used to tell my dad, ‘Papi, ¿pero un chavito por tanto trabajo?’” Villalobos remembered.
“Because you had to make the plant grow, cultivate, harvest them, prepare them so that they would pay a penny later. So I promised myself that I wasn’t going to do that,” she said.
The company’s ecological practices also made them stand out among the competition. Amasar uses renewable energy, rainwater for irrigation, and ditches to control erosion.
“We also have a proposal with the Agriculture Department and the Trees that Feed Foundation to plant 5,000 breadfruit trees in the mountains, between Utuado, Ciales, and Adjuntas. With that, in addition to helping local farmers prosper, we are also helping to combat global warming, because the breadfruit tree is an excellent carbon dioxide scavenger,” Villalobos said.
Villalobos is also committed to supporting other women in the business and belongs to an organization called Agricultoras Unidas, where they share experiences and knowledge.
“I am convinced that women are the ones that are going to transform the world. And women are concerned with all that is happening at a global level. They understand that if we do not [get involved], this is in danger and that’s why we are trying to make a difference,” Villalobos said.