Alex von Loebell came to Colombia when his father requested help on the family farm. Ten years later, as founder of BioPlaza, Alex has a chain of health food stores in the city and is helping to shape our own food revolution.
1. How did you first hear about Colombia?
My family has roots in Colombia since the late 19th century when my great grandfather, Adolf Held came here from Bremen, Germany. He settled in Barranquilla in 1880 and created a trading company in 1886. He became a cattle farmer who set up many businesses during those years, such as a series of hardware shops known as Almacenes Helda. Just before WWI broke out in Europe, my grandfather had 11,000 cattle and was a founding member and the first president of the Banco Aleman Antioqueño (later the Banco Comercial Antioqueño).
2. What happened during the wars?
With the outbreak of the World War II in 1939, it was forbidden for German and Japanese companies to do business with Colombia and allied powers. The Casa Held companies fell upon hard times. My great grandfather died in 1927 from an infection, and the family farm, which had grown to 32,000 hectares, was expropriated by the Colombian government. My grandfather Adolf K. Held, the nephew of the pioneering Held had to liquidate the company. Like many Germans and Japanese he found himself living through the war at the infamous Fusagasuga detention center.
3. So you grew up in Munich?
My father and mother were raised in Germany and married in Hamburg. My father, who was working with Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz in Venezuela, decided to return to Colombia in the 1950s and go independent with his businesses. I was actually born in Bogota in 1964, but when my parents split up my mother took my sister and me to Munich.
4. What career did you follow in Germany?
I always had that historical and generational reference with Colombia, but had no plans to come here. When I finished my Marketing and Advertising diploma in Munich, I went on to work in television and film merchandising. I started out with EM Entertainment as a sales executive for Hanna-Barbera. Then I moved on to become a project and brand executive with the media marketing company Munchen KG as well as handling license and concession rights for the global cable network, Sat 1. I had a very attractive career ahead of me.
5. What made you leave media to end up in Colombia?
I spent eight years working in Media before my father asked if I was interested in coming to Colombia to help him out on the farm and with his business. “I’m not that crazy,” was my initial thought. Colombia in 1999 was a very difficult place. There were mass kidnappings and the economy was in shambles over drug-related violence. There were no jobs here.
6. What was your father doing here?
He was in construction. Spare parts and raw materials. He was a social entrepreneur. I took the decision to join him. I had only seen my father for several months each year when he came and visited us in Germany. I felt that Colombia could really help to build this relationship.
7. So a reuniting of father and son sealed your fate?
Yes. There was some reason why I had to come here. Some kind of destiny. I decided to do it for a year.
8. How did you see Colombia?
I began to build a relationship with a very mysterious country. It’s still a very mysterious country. Why don’t they focus more on working together than against each other. From independents to large companies, the level here of incumplimiento shows a lack of seriousness from the employed to the large company.
9. And your first steps in biodynamic farming?
I was in charge of my father’s farm in Tenjo, which became a model for biodynamic farming. We started selling to vegetarian restaurants. Then I realized that it would be good for us to open our own points of sale. We started out with two people to help with the nutrition and diet side of the business.
10. What are the principles behind biodynamic food?
It’s finding the total balance between adding external influences to the soil and the natural nutrients of crops. Seventy percent of Colombia’s agricultural area is caught in a vicious cycle between fertilizers and pesticides. This ends up in your system.
11. How was farm life?
I was convinced by the idea of working on a farm. What I then realized was how tough it is to produce any kind of naturally-farmed crop. From pulling out weeds to sorting through the produce, it’s startling how many days and months go into growing one head of lettuce. Once you realize this, the farm becomes a “life source.”
12. Organic became the engine that turned the farm into a “life source”?
Indeed. Health costs are rising significantly around the world in relation to a country’s GDP. With pesticides and chemicals we are only increasing the social, health and economic time bomb. We sensed that if we created something good, we would attract something good.
13. How did the farmers respond?
From the start we had farmers come to us very interested in organic methodology. My father helped start a boarding school for farmers between the ages of 18 and 25, many displaced from the tragedy in Armero, who wanted to learn about the economic benefits of working on a biodynamic farm.
14. So growing organic can really have a social impact?
Our modern farmers can use smart phones and the Internet to go after better prices. Buying organic not only means helping farming communities improve their livelihoods without having to give up such a percentage of their incomes for supermarket intermediaries, but also value their hard work.
15. How do you see the situation of farmers here?
The situation in Colombia with the farmer is difficult. Young people don’t want to work on a farm. What we strive to do with organic farming is give young people an opportunity to change the way they think about agriculture and really see the health benefits. Farmers tend to love responsibility.
16. How do clients find out about BioPlaza?
People come here through word of mouth. This is still very much a niche market, which aims to orient the consumer on being more conscious about eating.
17. Do you see a trend with young people eating better?
There is a new generation conscious about the health benefits of being vegetarian or eating organic foods. People tend to change their food behaviors from generation to generation. I see a real food revolution underway in this city.
18. How can you convince people to change their eating habits?
Organic is a very practical solution to dealing with the stresses of living in this society. It’s about finding your balance between the spiritual, mental and physical. Through a balanced diet we can face life that much better. This was the law of the Greeks. If you eat rubbish, you’ll become rubbish.
19. What are the plans for 2013 and BioPlaza?
We currently have three stores with different concepts such as supermarket and express take-out. We have plans to expand to 30 stores and we are looking into other cities. But we are very careful as we have strict controls as to what comes into our shops. We know personally all our providers and their quality standards. We also look to preserve that spirit of entrepreneurship in a country where it is difficult to be innovative.
20. How would you sum up your initiative in Colombia with organic farming?
We like to give new ideas, especially those that are viable and sustainable, a space to grow.