Support Women Coffee Growers with These 3 Award-Winning Coffees
Latte, Americano, cold brew, decaf drip—any way you sip it, your coffee has a story. Where the coffee cherries were grown (yep, beans are in fact cherry stones), the person who picked and dried them, and the journey they took to eventually make it into your cup.
Quaff on this: per the World Bank, 500 million people on this planet depend on the coffee industry for their livelihood—and of that number, 25 million are coffee farmers who generally live in substandard conditions, receiving only pennies on the dollar for their contribution to our caffeine fix. More than half of those workers are women, but these same women are usually underrepresented socially, economically and politically in their communities. Without the work of these tenacious ladies, family incomes would drastically decrease, farm production would come to a standstill, communities would suffer untold costs—and coffee offerings would be seriously slim.
So we’re partnering with the nonprofit International Women in Coffee Alliance (IWCA) to combat gender inequality in the coffee supply chain by investing in women-led cooperatives and farms. Starting May 1, all of our Ebar coffee shops will carry three specialty blends grown by women in places like El Salvador, Colombia and Burundi. All blends are medium roast and have won quality awards for their flavor.
We recently sat down with several IWCA members at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle. Here’s what these women entrepreneurs had to say about their experiences working in the coffee industry, specifically with IWCA, and how the program has helped empower the women and communities around them.
More than 300 women belong to Las Rosas Women’s Coffee Project, which helps women growers in the Huila region of Colombia gain financial literacy and economic stability.
Las Rosas members belong to the Association of Women Coffee Growers of West Huila (Asociación de Mujeres Cafeteras del Occidente del Huila) in Colombia, where sustainable farming practices are taught to produce a higher-quality, higher-premium bean.
Berry harvesters of Finca Las Mercedes, a fifth-generation El Salvadorian farm that dates back to 1886. Sisters-in-law Silvia and Lucia Ortiz run the farm, which has won both Cup of Excellence and Best of Origin awards.
Lucia Ortiz, Las Mercedes Farm Owner,
What has it meant for you—and the chapter of women you represent today—to be partnered with the IWCA?
Well, I am the former president of the El Salvador IWCA chapter, actually. So starting to have a name or a position in a world of men—because it is an organization we have that represents women—is very important, because it opens doors. And then you start opening the eyes of other women. That there is somebody there, that they can help you, that you can meet people, that you can do things. It’s been great. We saw a lot of needs in education for women farmers and also a lot of needs in the society—and fulfilling all that with the items here has been great.
Lucia, you mentioned that the IWCA has allowed other women to see your chapter as an example of female leadership roles. What does that do for the women in your community, would you say? How does having women in power strengthen the community?
Well, it is funny, because actually in El Salvador a lot of things have changed. [Historically], the coffee farms were managed by men, but a lot of the farms are now inherited by women. Breaking that [tradition], that women are present, that we are empowered. Women are not afraid of asking for help. That is something we learn in the chapter. We are always trying to help each other. If we have a problem, we call. I even made a WhatsApp chat, now with 100 women in the same chat. So every time they say, “Hey, do you know how I do the patios,” everybody sends them pictures and tells them to use this or that.
As women, we always want to educate people, right? And help people. So that is one of the major things we are doing in El Salvador. Every time we ask the Organization of Cuppers or somebody to do an educational thing, they say: “I always love to work with you, you are so organized, you always have everything up to date.” So everybody is actually now looking forward to everything we do, because they expect quality. They expect something important from us. We are a chapter, right? IWCA is Mom and we’re the kids! But having the IWCA [use us] as an example, it gives us a lot of empowerment.
As coffee consumers, how can we improve the conditions and the fair wages for coffee farmers and their families?
Try to start paying a fair price for coffee, because many coffee producers now have more of a social conscience. For example, us—we’ve got our clinic at the farm. And sadly, the government we have, there’s no medicine at the hospitals, and no doctors at the hospitals. So, for example, when we built the clinic, it actually was meant for our workers and the three communities near us. We are now actually looking [at] almost 13 communities that come in. We’ve got a nurse the whole week and Saturdays and the doctor comes on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We also try, [but] we cannot always give the medicine. And we do the prevention. It is part of [how] Nordstrom is helping—the prevention of cervical and breast cancer.
So actually, when you pay a premium on the coffee, it helps us with these things, because working for a specialty coffee is not easy. And that is one of the things that, really, I think you need to know. Making a special coffee means more work, more quality, specific women or people working it, and it is a laborious process. It costs money. But if [buyers] don’t pay you that, then you can’t reinvest in the farm, and you can’t actually pay your workers better or give them better conditions or help with social equality. So seeing it that way, it’s like, when you drink a cup of coffee think, “Okay, I am helping a woman to prevent her having cancer, or I am paying for the good work.”
Owner of JNP Coffee and Lead of Burundi’s IWCA Cooperative
As someone who lives in the U.S., how did you get involved in coffee with the IWCA?
I was in Burundi in 2010, visiting. It was just a visiting project that we had in the country for my nonprofit, Friends of Burundi, and one of my cousins—who was in the coffee industry—came to me and said, “You know, I have this thing that is really doing very well, but I don’t have a market. Can you help me?” That was 2012, so in 2013 I started going to Burundi with buyers, to the washing stations. And in 2014, he won the Cup of Excellence, number 1 and number 3. It was like, “Oh, my gosh! Okay, I guess this is real now.”
And then in 2015, the Burundi chapter of the IWCA actually came to me and said, “Hey, your nonprofit gave us goats in 2013. That was wonderful, but we can’t sell our coffee. Can you help us? We know you are doing a lot of work with your cousin and you are selling all this great coffee. Can you help us?”
I’m like, “Well, I don’t know anything about your coffee and I don’t sell any kind of coffee. Is your coffee [an] 86 or plus? That is the only coffee that I can trade.” So anyway, in 2015, I started actually buying women’s coffee. It was just a few bags. And then I said, “Okay, I think I can do some work here.”
What are you most proud of? How has your involvement helped the lives of women growers in Burundi?
One thing I am actually very proud about is my company traded all the IWCA coffee and then we also paid $80,000 directly to the women farmers, which is 2,000 of them. $80,000 went directly into IWCA bank accounts and the women got their premium. I was part of the premium distribution. I went back to Burundi in December to actually oversee that that premium was being distributed, and that was a big deal.
I also went back to Burundi in March to visit and I said, “How are things going?” They said, “Do you remember that financial literacy program that you brought to us? Well, you are not training us fast enough!” I was expecting they were going to say, “How can we get more money?” So I guess, I was just very touched, because here is a [financial literacy and savings] program that we brought to them, that they did not want anything to do with at first. (They wanted the money and we said, “We are not going to give you any more money.”) And nowadays they are telling me, “You cannot train us fast enough, because groups are starting to form. They are waiting for the other trainers to come and train them. This is really amazing.”
But to go back to what really brings me joy—it’s actually being able to touch the lives of these women in different ways. I used to think, “Yeah, the money is going to be just really what they are looking for,” but it’s actually this empowerment. I didn’t even think they were going to accept [the program], and it actually has been the most successful thing ever done in my point of view, because we are now giving them a tool to not stay poor forever.
RGC Americas Coffee Importers and
Program Coordinator for Las Rosas, Colombia
What are some of the social hurdles for women growers in Colombia? And how does the Las Rosas program help women overcome them?
One component we have in the project is to help [the women growers with] domestic violence. We are working to get with the husbands, because we have a lot of women that live with their husbands and [their extended] family. And we are training the husbands, too, because we feel that if we want to create a new way of women and men really having a good relationship in the home, then we truly believe that it’s important to change the [behavior] because we are thinking about the next generation. And if we quit this chain of violence, we can do real change in the communities.
And then, on top of that, we are working with them on a topic called “balance of gender,” because when you are working with women farmers, the problem here is that they are very strong and they do a lot of things on the farm, but additionally they must deal with taking care of the family. They do everything in the home. Not only the farming activities, but also cleaning the clothes and cooking—everything. And the idea here is that we want to achieve a balance between the work that the woman does in the home and the one that the man has to do in the home.
Do you see your chapter as a role model for other like-minded programs?
Yes, and I want to add something because I think it’s very, very important. Our chapter in Colombia is like a flagship project for women. This last year, an NGO that is working in Colombia [named] Solidaridad did research on women and coffee in Colombia, and our project was the only unique example of a project that is having good outcomes in terms of gender and is [having a] real impact in the communities. And we feel very proud of that. They released the report two months ago and the report is on our webpage, if you want to [see it]. It’s absolutely wonderful.
How does someone start a program like this in an impoverished, mostly male-dominated community?
Obviously, when we started it was a challenge, because [the men] didn’t want to give permission to the women to go to our meetings. And through the co-op, we started to get a better approach to the men and we decided to perform a very big workshop with 450 people in one village. We invited not only the women but also the husbands. And when they came to the workshop, they understood that this is not only a topic of empowering a woman to fight—no, it’s a topic of entrepreneurship, it’s a topic of family prosperity. And when they understood that, they immediately changed their mind and we got the doors opened to women.