There’s something unusual about Cooperativa Agraria Cafetalera, Peru’s coffee co-operative, nestled high in the Andes amid the Amazon’s tropical forests. The manager of the 800-member co-operative — which runs a credit and savings bank, a scholarship fund to help members’ children attend university in Lima, and a weekly radio show — is a woman.
In 2001, when Esperanza Dionisio Castillo became manager of the cooperative, then $10,000 in debt, she took on what she called the challenge of her life. Under her leadership, the co-op became certified Fair Trade and organic, diversified its products to include honey and cocoa, strengthened its social initiatives, and began exporting coffee to the United States and Europe. The women’s committee of CAC Pangoa, known as CODEMU (Committee for Women’s Development), provides microfinance loans, promotes female leadership, and runs workshops about nutrition and gender equality issues. This year, the UK’s Taylors of Harrogate is selling CODEMU-grown coffee, named after Esperanza, with a premium from sales enabling the committee to provide interest-free microloans for women’s health care.
While it’s not as widely marketed as shade-grown or bird-friendly coffee, “women’s coffee” is not new. In Nicaragua, where coffee accounts for almost a quarter of the national export value and makes up about one-third of rural employment, the more than 260-member-strong La FEM (Fundación Entre Mujeres, or Foundation Between Women) supports the economic, ideological, and political empowerment of rural women. Since 2011, it’s sold its Las Diosas (The Goddesses) coffee through Just Coffee in the United States. Then there’s Vega Coffee, a start-up that’s been called the Etsy of coffee, that sidesteps middlemen by connecting female coffee farmers and producers with the means to roast and process the beans themselves.
Women's coffee is not just feel-good lip service for the conscious consumer... “If the money goes directly to the woman, it stays in the village, because she’s raising a family. It’s used for education."
These are small measures to tip the scales toward parity. In the coffee industry, women undertake approximately 70 per cent of the fieldwork but typically own only 15 percent of the land, processing facilities, and traded product. So if environmentally conscious coffee has been successfully and widely marketed to coffee drinkers concerned with habitat, is there untapped commercial potential in coffee that supports the economic empowerment of women in coffee-producing countries?
“Absolutely,” said Kelle Vandenberg of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), which has two programs already in development to create platforms to sell women-grown coffee. “Right now, there are certifications processes going on for women-grown coffee along the lines of Fair Trade. There are individual roasters across the United States who are choosing to purchase only women-grown coffee.” A portion of each sale at City Girl Coffee, based in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, goes to support women in the coffee’s origin country. In 2013, Boyd’s Coffee in Portland, Oregon, was the first roaster to feature a “Harvested by Women” certification with its single-origin Cafe Libre Co. Thus far, it’s a groundswell, not a tidal wave.
The IWCA is coming to Australia too. The organisation has Producing Country Chapters (alliances of women in countries of orgin) and Consuming Country Chapters (networks of women in areas that mainly consume coffee grown elsewhere); Australia is unusual in that it both produces and consumes coffee, and here work is underway to set up a chapter that will relate to both (see below).
Women's coffee is not just feel-good lip service for the conscious consumer, Vandenberg said. “If the money goes directly to the woman, it stays in the village, because she’s raising a family. It’s used for education. It’s used for improvements in infrastructure.”
Studies bear this out. When women have control over their family’s income, they spend 90 per cent of it on their families, compared with the 30 to 40 per cent that men spend, and children’s health and nutrition improves. When we talk about coffee, we’re talking about an economically powerful product—a hugely valuable export commodity for developing nations.
In 2013, IWCA’s chapters represented nearly 60 per cent of world coffee production. That has since grown to 20 chapters in 20 countries, where their work gives women the resources and education to collectively capitalise on the value of the product, like Nicaragua’s La FEM and Peru’s CAC Pangoa have. For some, that means learning to cup and taste their own coffee for the first time, Vandenberg said.
“They have the vision. They have the power,” Vandenberg said. “We just have to help them with the tools.”
Isabelle Sinamenye, whom Vandenberg first met in Burundi in 2009, was “very, very shy—almost apologetically standing there,” Vandenberg said. Since then, she has become the IWCA Burundi chapter president, forming a cooperative, selling the group’s coffee, and profit-sharing with a coffee-washing station. “I saw her last spring, and I didn’t even recognize her. This shy, tall, regal woman became a business dynamo.”
“You have to really be able to appreciate both sides of that,” Vandenberg said, “from a business perspective as well as from a humanitarian perspective. These are women getting together with other women, building and creating opportunities and paving their own path — because they’re not going to ask permission to walk on the established road.”
For more information on the formation of the IWCA chapter in Australia, email firstname.lastname@example.org