"I think that what we are doing can be a bridge between people."

For more than 50 years, the vast majority of Cubans were employed by the state and private trade was discouraged. Recent economic reforms are changing this picture, allowing more Cubans to own their own business and seeing a new breed of Cuban entrepreneur surface – often with inspiration from the past.

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I think what makes me an entrepreneur is that I like change, I have always followed my beliefs and I don’t give up. I think you can do many things well if you are really passionate about it.

Sandra Aldama, D'Brujas

Maersk Line’s Cuban delight

In just a few years, Maersk Line has managed to secure volumes north of 23,000 FFE to Cuba. Key to the success is a direct route from Europe, a high service level and a commitment to the business ambitions of the Caribbean island, where international politics continue to impact the flow of trade.

Born in Havana in 1975, it was not until Sandra Aldama turned 35 that she began to understand, or as she puts it “had a glimpse of”, what it means to be an entrepreneur:

“I think it's a matter of what you can learn and how important it is to create something, giving value to work, learning to set goals and following your instincts. Learning how beautiful it is to bring an idea to life and enjoy the process,” she says.

2010 was a landmark year for Cuba. Sweeping reforms to open the economy were announced after the official policy had sought to “eliminate all manifestations of private trade” for decades. The reforms allowed more Cubans to own their own businesses – known as cuentapropismo – and Sandra Aldama was keen to take the jump.

Something unique

Initially, her motivation was to be able to manage her time more productively, not only financially but also for her family and young son, and – equally important – to create something that would be her own:

“My dream was to do something unique, something that was different and new in Cuba,” she says.

During the first year, Sandra Aldama worked on various projects, including several natural cosmetics items, but none of the projects really fit the bill. Holding a degree in special education, she was also learning to run a business as she went along. After roughly a year of trial-and-error, she decided to concentrate on soaps, calling her business D'Brujas (By Witches).

We love trade
Sandra Aldama makes a number of the D'Brujas soaps with herbs grown at Vivero Alamar.
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Starting up, she received help from her grandmother, a beauty adviser to a French cosmetics company before the revolution in 1959, who shared her secret recipes and knowledge of the trade.

Today, D'Brujas imports base soap from France and creates unique soaps with scents of e.g. coffee, red wine and herbs. Sales are at about 1,500 bars of soap a month. Customers are Cuban people and tourists. In five years, the company aims to be fully positioned domestically and exporting to the international market – increasing sales drastically – aided by Maersk Line’s direct service to Cuba from Europe.

“I don’t give up” 

“We need to import more base soap and at the same time begin exporting our products. I want to work with Maersk Line to bring my products to other countries and to bring ingredients that I cannot find in Cuba. I imagine that it will be a step-by-step process but this is where I see D'Brujas going,” says Sandra Aldama, adding:  

“I think what makes me an entrepreneur is that I like change, I have always followed my beliefs and I don’t give up. I think you can do many things well if you are really passionate about it.”

Sourcing ingredients locally for the soap production, Sandra has begun a partnership with Miguel Lopez, who is the president of Vivero Alamar, Havana’s largest organic garden, which covering 11 hectares is actually more of an urban farm.

The garden is a cooperative, which Lopez describes as a “private ownership enterprise with socialist, egalitarian tendencies.” Of the 164 workers, 22 have university degrees. Seventy percent of the profit is distributed among the workers, 20 percent goes to farm infrastructure, and 10 percent goes to the state.

Miguel Lopez
Miguel Lopez at Vivero Alamar.

Bigger ambitions than cigars and rum

One of the world’s last Communist countries is opening up to the world. With a new direct service to the island from Northern Europe, Maersk Line underlines its commitment to a developing Cuba.

Miguel Lopez, who has celebrated his 70th birthday, grew up in a rural farmer community. His family were landowners before the revolution in 1959 and he became a farmer too. Eventually, he also took a degree in economics, but worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, maintaining the link to agriculture.

When he was with the Ministry of Agriculture, officials had to engage themselves practically and actively in agriculture development. 15 years ago, he decided to join Vivero Alamar.

Miguel Lopez has travelled the world speaking about the techniques of Cuba’s organic farming.

“We, in Cuba, have developed very attractive technologies and we have exchange ideas with farmers around the world, in particular the US. I think it would be a good opportunity for our technicians to promote organic farming in Cuba and wherever they are; as an alternative for social progress.”

D'Brujas makes a number of soaps with herbs grown at Vivero Alamar.