In Conversation with Jenifer Colpas, GCL Impact Award 2022
Jenifer Colpas, GCL 2019 from Colombia, has been awarded the GCL Impact Award 2022. Her GCL project Tierra Grata, which she co-founded, provides portable sanitation, energy, and water infrastructure solutions to remote and vulnerable communities in the Caribbean and Pacific regions of Colombia through a service subscription and community training and empowerment model. In 2021, Jenifer was selected as a 2021 Top 10 CNN Hero.
It is 7:30 pm in the evening in Brighton, a small town of just under 300,000 inhabitants, an hour and a half away from London. We connect by zoom with Jenifer Colpas, GCL 2019 from Cartagena, Colombia who has just learned that she has been awarded the GCL Impact Award 2022 by Georgetown University Latin America Leadership Program as recognition for her outstanding leadership in promoting the GCL program multiplier effect in the Latin American region.
I'm kind of in shock. I remember well that it was the founders of Chicas en Tecnología who won this award while I was a participant of the GCL program back in 2019, and now it is me. It's hard to imagine.
And, especially this last year has been a roller coaster of milestones for Jeni, as her friends know her, expanding the impact of her Tierra Grata project from the Colombian Caribbean to the Pacific, winning the Chevening scholarship at the University of Sussex, and being selected as a 2021 Top 10 CNN Hero. And after years of hard work, Jennifer continues to lead Tierra Grata, the project she presented at GCL in 2019, demonstrating her firm conviction in the need to serve displaced and vulnerable communities across Colombia, and always holding on to her bigger dream.
We dream of a Tierra Grata for all Latin America.
With 1,568 installed solutions, 12,362 service users, and an incalculable improvement in the social well-being of the 47 remote and vulnerable communities served by Tierra Grata, when we ask Jenifer about what prompted her to dedicate herself to this, she surprises us with that maturity that characterizes her and tells us about the three key moments that marked that shift in her personal and professional journey. The first was her work experience in India which made her question the lessons learned. The second is her experience volunteering with displaced and vulnerable populations in the Colombian Caribbean where she worked with like-minded leaders with the same concerns and commitment to action. And, the third and definitive one, is her Global Competitiveness Leadership Program (GCL) experience, which consolidated Tierra Gratas' transition phase from a volunteer project to a sustainable social company.
Jenifer remembers with a smile her five-minute meeting with MSB Professor Ricardo Ernst, the academic director and founding soul of the program which made her rethink the old model, "Yes, you have to charge for the service. You can't give it for free if you want Tierra Grata to be a social enterprise economically sustainable."
That, together with all the academic learnings and the reflections of her fellow cohort members, helped her devise a sustainable business model for this great dream.
We could have never imagined that this project was going to be so big because at first, we didn't even understand that the problem was so big.
Working with Design Thinking, which is one of the topics covered in GCL, Jenifer walks us through the process of conceiving solutions that responded to the needs of the communities they served.
We faciliated many co-creation spaces, we worked on many prototypes, we went back and forth, and that was how we were able to define the type of technologies we needed to offer.
With the prototypes, first pilots, and the feedback received from the communities, Jenifer and her team adjusted the solutions to respond to the communities' realities.
For example, with the problem of energy, at first, we thought it was as easy as lighting up the streets, but the reality was that there was no electricity inside the houses, they couldn't connect to a cell phone, there was a lot to be done and adjust, and we did it by listening to the communities.
Tierra Grata's beginnings date back to the signing of the Peace Treaty in Colombia as a way to provide for the needs of the many communities displaced by 50 years of internal conflict. It was in these co-creation spaces that the team realized that the solutions had to be easy and quick to install due to the remoteness of the sites and the difficulties of bringing in the equipment. Arduous and flooded paths, communities bordering dangerous areas. And although the situation in these areas is still not ideal, the trust generated by years of work and measurable results has allowed Tierra Grata to continue advancing solutions and accessing new communities in an organic way.
We started with a community in the upper part of the Montes de Maria in Colombia, but we are already in six surrounding communities because the leaders of those communities started talking and asking us to bring them solutions.
And Tierra Grata not only continues to expand its regional reach but also continues to innovate solutions to offer answers to new needs.
We are working now to create a small store because the communities' new access to energy now allows them to do things that were unimaginable for them before. Some as basic as having access to refrigeration and being able to market their products and obtain income for their community, so that they don´t have to travel down for about two hours to find a more expensive and similar product. And we now support education, as in the midst of the pandemic we began bringing water and sanitation solutions to community kitchens and schools.
Jenifer has managed to remain active in the GCL network, which in turn has opened up new horizons for her. In this sense, last year, they expanded to the Pacific, thanks to Neyla Yadira Amu, Mayor of the town of Timbiqui, and GCL 2015 alumna. And the network continues to share common dreams for the region
I remember a lot from my experience at GCL. Hours and hours with colleagues brainstorming how we could connect all our projects. Even today, Fabrizio from Brazil writes to me and tells me "Jeni, I have not forgotten that I want to bring Tierra Grata to Brazil" and Anyela from Panama helped us connect Tierra Grata with her company to develop a project. Somehow they all became "fans" of everything I did.
And so, with an honesty that identifies her, Jenifer reflects on her type of leadership, which might be perceived as reserved and of low profile, but with a firm conviction and great effort, she manages to move teams and create an undeniable impact. Jenifer is an example of principled, transformative, and adaptive leadership, and, at Georgetown University Latin America Leadership Program, we are proud to have been able to support her in her quest to make that ambitious but necessary dream come true.
The 2022 GCL Impact Award Ceremony took place at Georgetown University on March 31, 2022, where we were able to celebrate Jenifer and the latest two award winners, Kenneth Gent and Allison Silva, who were unable to join us on campus due to the pandemic. To learn more about Allison, Kenneth, and other past award recipients, you can access here.
For more information about Tierra Grata and how to support them, you can visit https://tierragrata.org/
Watch Jenifer Colpas' 2021 Top 10 CNN Hero Video