Melissa de León of Panama, founder of Panama Gourmet, a company which produces gluten-free foods, won the 2012 UNCTAD Empretec Women in Business Award, delivered during UNCTAD XIII on 23 April 2012 in Doha, Qatar.
"Empretec training allowed me to obtain intense and hands-on feedback on how to improve my business project, and how to get the best out of my ability. After the workshop, I developed a business plan to present to prospective investors.
What I am good at is working shoulder to shoulder with my staff, always giving the best of me and allowing them to always see me involved in the production process." Melissa de León
Tropical Panama Gourmet produces and markets food products based on flour made from locally grown tubers that do not contain gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley, and oats. Gluten-free flour provides healthy nutrition for diabetics, persons with celiac disease, persons allergic to wheat, and elderly persons with digestive problems. It also is a valuable base for baby food and is often recommended for persons suffering from autism and cancer. Melissa devised a flour making use of the entire tuber of locally grown crops, thus enabling her supplying farmers to sell their crops without waste and to earn steady incomes. And her goods have a shelf life of 10 months without the use of additives or preservatives, which makes shipment of the product overseas commercially competitive.
Tropical Panama Gourmet is the only producer of gluten-free food in Latin America. The intent of the firm is not only to expand sales but to support Panamanian agribusiness, “which is underutilized,” and to help establish a national reputation for innovative and healthy products. In addition, the company provides training services, cooking courses, and personalized catering. Melissa began with a staff of one – herself – and without a commercial kitchen. Earnings were $100-$300 per month. Now the firm has 10 employees, eight of whom are women. “My ambition is to export 100% Panamanian products, while at the same time contributing to agribusiness in my country and promoting healthy nutrition.” The company has been selected as one of four finalists from among 250 entrants in a business incubator competition.