Best Social Sustainability Initiative

Project Lead: Ingenio La Unión


In recent years, there has been a significant shortage of labour in Guatemala, with many people, especially men, migrating to the United States. This has affected multiple industries, from sugar to bananas, coffee, and rubber.

Ingenio La Union is a mill based in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, Escuintla, Guatemala. In the local area, women usually take the role of housewife, and culturally they are expected to dedicate themselves to running their household and raising their children.

Ingenio La Unión was looking to increase the number of women in their agricultural workforce, and began asking the question – why not train women to do the agricultural work usually done by men?

The project

The aim of the initiative is to economically empower Guatemalan women between the ages of 20 and 40, and help them obtain better job opportunities by training them in agricultural operations related to sugarcane. Ultimately, women who graduate from the programme would be able to operate mechanised harvesting equipment in the field.

Ingenio La Unión was the first sugar mill in Guatemala to carry out this project. It developed a specific career development plan for the women taking part in the initiative, to guide them through the training. The plan included the phases:

  • Corporate induction
  • Technical training on the job, and the development of transferable skills
  • Further training and technical evaluation
  • Onboarding in harvesting operations
  • Feedback
  • Graduation and certification of skills

Ingenio La Unión created different schools for each phase, which ensured the women gained the right skills and knowledge to operate the machinery. Upon completing the programme, the women received a diploma from the Technical Institute for Training and Productivity, which carries weight and recognition in Guatemala.

Of the 43 women who began the first training programme in 2019, 77% were between the ages of 20 and 25. Only 32% of them attended or graduated from university. They began mechanised harvesting in 2021, while a second group graduated from the programme in 2023. Their performance and skills throughout the programme were monitored by Ingenio La Unión’s human resources department.

Impact and results 

As of 2024, there are 85 women working across two female-only mechanised harvesting teams.   

The women are measured against a number of quality and productivity indicators by supervisors, including: 

  • Tonnes harvested per day
  • Mineral trash
  • Vegetable trash
  • Tonnes per hour, by harvester and tractor
  • Tonnes per cage

The women are required to meet the same targets as the other male-dominated harvesting teams, and the teams hold weekly accountability meetings and an end-of-harvest performance evaluation to ensure they remain on-track. This has helped transform the culture of the company to be more accepting of women doing agricultural work.

Each team at Ingenio La Unión harvests 2,100 tonnes of cane, and now 21% of the total sugarcane harvested by the mill is harvested by women.

Since the women have job stability and opportunities for development, they have become key sources of income for their families. Several women who started as tractor or harvester operators have been promoted to harvesting supervisors.

The initiative has also improved the self-esteem of the women involved, as they felt they were breaking stereotypes and proving to themselves they could achieve their goals. Before starting the programme, many did not know how to ride a bicycle, and now the women drive combine harvesters worth thousands of dollars. The success of the first intake inspired other women from across the Guatemalan south coast to take part in the project.

Learnings and future work  

Ingenio La Unión is pleased to see how empowered the participating women have become, and know that having specialised skills and knowledge will open new doors in the women’s careers and personal life. It has been making field visits to other mills and producers, where it has shared its experience of the project and its success – the project has now become a reference for the Guatemalan sector.

Ingenio La Unión now plans to continue training women in mechanised harvesting, and to increase the percentage of women in its workforce.

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