Step Aside, Gents. Witness The Rise Of Women In Coffee

Apr 25, 2013
Originally published on January 9, 2014 2:49 pm

The inspiration for NPR's Coffee Week arrived in an email last summer. I had just reported on the growing Third-Wave Movement in Coffee, and the burgeoning interest in coffee cuppings.

One listener, Margaret Swallow, who'd heard the story on her local station, WVXU in Cincinnati, reached out to me with the story of 30-plus years in coffee — which culminated in the founding of the International Women's Coffee Alliance, a group with chapters from Kenya to Costa Rica.

Its mission (as this video helps explain) is to help bolster women in coffee-producing countries — in part, by helping them find ways to start their own businesses and bring more resources back to their communities. Stories like that of these four female coffee growers in Africa, whom we profiled last November, represent the vanguard of change and hope in the industry.

Swallow began her career in 1979. Back then, she was marketing the coffee that lots of us grew up with. Fresh out of Harvard Business School, she was hired by Proctor & Gamble as a brand assistant on Folgers Coffee.

If you listen to my story, you'll hear how she had an aha moment when she traveled to a coffee farm in Africa. The images she encountered of women and children working long hours in poor conditions, amid crushing poverty, stayed with her. She knew she wanted to make a difference.

The IWCA, now in its 10th year, has grown into a powerful networking organization. But there's still a long way to go. As the International Trade Centre has documented, women on family-owned coffee plants in African countries take on about 70 percent of maintenance and harvesting work. Yet they tend to have little or no control over their farms' finances, and they typically do not own land or have easy access to credit.

But change is coming.

Increasingly in Central and South America, women are making progress. On Tuesday, we documented the story of Guatemalan farmer Miguelina Villatoro. In Colombia, 47 percent of the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers' members are female. In fact, one-fifth of that country's farms are owned and operated by women, according to the federation.

So what's next? One new initiative underway is the creation of a Women's Harvest brand of coffee. Nancy Moore of the Almana Harvest Fund is collaborating with the Costa Rican chapter of the IWCA. They're hoping to launch a pilot soon.

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It's Coffee Week here on MORNING EDITION.


NATALIE COLE: (Singing) Coffee time, let's listen to some jazz and rhyme and have a cup of coffee.

MONTAGNE: For those of you out there sipping coffee, chances are your cup of Joe was brewed from beans that were handpicked or processed by women. Women can be found at every point of coffee production. Often those jobs still leave those women terribly poor. NPR's Alison Aubrey reports on efforts to change that.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When Margaret Swallow graduated from Harvard Business School back in 1979, she was hired by Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati to market the coffee that lots of us grew up with.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

AUBREY: Swallow was very successful. Coffee was profitable. But Margaret's job was an office job. She had no idea what life was like for people who grew coffee beans. She'd never been to the countries or farms that produced coffee. But as her career advanced, she got the chance to do this, and it changed her life.

MARGARET SWALLOW: We would go way off the beaten path, very remote areas and - eastern Africa, Central America. And I recall being stunned by seeing children and women.

AUBREY: Who were picking the beans and processing the coffee, working long hours for very little pay. The poverty was crushing. Sometimes families didn't even have the basics, such as clean water or a stove to cook.

SWALLOW: It makes you very sad.

AUBREY: Margaret came back determined to do something. She teamed up with a friend named Karen Cebreros, who'd also built a successful career in coffee. And they decided to bring together a bunch of other powerful women working in the coffee industry. Karen had one idea.

KAREN CEBREROS: What if we just took a busload, literally, of all women and they saw the situation of how we're living so well in consumer countries and growers are really suffering.

AUBREY: She bet they'd want to push for change too. Now, the first stop on the bus tour was a village in a coffee-growing region of Nicaragua.

CEBREROS: Before we got off the bus, we saw the little schoolhouse that they were trying to build. And it had no roof, no doors, no windows, no floor - just a little façade - a chalkboard and no chalk. And within 10 minutes we passed a hat around the bus and we collected $500 and we handed it to them and said, here, will this help you finish your school? And of course it did.

AUBREY: But Cebreros says they all knew it was not a solution - it was just a Band-Aid.

CEBREROS: It was just going to be a cycle of poverty over and over again.

AUBREY: The group of women on that bus knew that they needed to do something really different. You see, the reason coffee and poverty are so inextricably linked is because the people who do the back-breaking labor, handpicking the beans, have always been many, many steps removed from us, the consumers, who actually drink coffee. Their work is invisible to us. In the coffee supply chain there are brokers, exporters, millers, roasters. And as each takes a little cut of the deal, precious little goes back to farm communities. Now, Karen and Margaret knew that to change things, the women farmers had to learn to set up coffee businesses. They needed direct access to brokers and buyers. They needed to learn to make the deals.

CEBREROS: The idea is, don't give a man a fish or a woman to fish, teach them to fish.

AUBREY: So what happened next is that they chartered a new organization, the International Women's Coffee Alliance. It's based on the Rotary Club model of local chapters. There are mentorship programs, opportunities for women to learn from each other and connect with key players along the supply chain. That was about a decade ago, and the organization was slow to start. But now there are 15 chapters, from Kenya to Costa Rica.


AUBREY: And this spring, hundreds of women gathered at a conference in Guatemala City.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We are ready to start the conference. Please, everyone join us on the second floor...

AUBREY: There were farmers, co-op managers, roasters and importantly buyers from the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good to see you.


AUBREY: In a small tasting room, coffee exporter Loyreth Sosa pours samples of eight coffees from different farms in Guatemala for buyers to taste. She gives each one a number.

LOYRETH SOSA: El cinco. Number five. You like it?

AUBREY: Sosa works for a family business in Guatemala City that's been handed down from father to son for generations. Now she's the one stepping up to make deals.

SOSA: Yes. This is 100 percent (unintelligible) coffee.

STEPHANIE BACCHUS: Very good coffee. I mean, very balanced, sweet.

AUBREY: Stephanie Bacchus is a buyer from Oregon. She's slurping and spitting the coffee to evaluate the characteristics of the beans.


BACCHUS: I like all of these.

SOSA: Yes. They are very good coffees.

AUBREY: Direct relationships like this between small growers, exporters and roasters are part of the expanding world of specialty coffee. But here's the deal: more than two-thirds of all the coffee in the U.S. is marketed and sold by big corporations, giants like Kraft, McDonalds, as well as big institutional players who supply coffee to hotels, hospitals and offices.

NANCY MOORE: Coffee is a business of volume. You know, it's a $40 billion marketplace in the U.S. - coffee.

AUBREY: That's corporate dealmaker Nancy Moore of Sausalito, California. And she believes it's time for women in coffee to get into this corporate space. And how? Well, she says there's Fair Trade coffee, Rain Forest Alliance certified - why not create a women's harvest certification or brand?

MOORE: Women's issues are very big right now.

AUBREY: Increasingly, big companies are making commitments to their shareholders to invest in sustainable and socially responsible projects. So Moore is calling on all her contacts in the corporate world to build support and launch a woman's brand of coffee.

MOORE: I brought in a team. Part of my team was the former of head of Marriott North America.

AUBREY: And now they're in the process of launching a pilot with Marriott Hotels in the Caribbean. The coffee will come from women's cooperatives in Costa Rica. And once it's up and running, it means that as Marriott customers sip their coffee, a few more cents per pound will go directly back to the women who produced it.

MOORE: What we're doing is facilitating change through social responsibility purchasing.

AUBREY: Initiatives like this won't change the lives of women coffee producers overnight, but Moore says they can over time. She points to studies that show there are differences between men and women entrepreneurs. Women tend to invest more profits back into their communities.

MOORE: By building the women and empowering them economically, you're building the whole community.


AUBREY: Take, for instance, this farmer in Guatemala, Miguelina Villatoro.


AUBREY: She supports the school in her village.

VILLATORO: Every year I do something for them, I try to help them.

AUBREY: So last spring when the roof sprang a leak...

VILLATORO: I helped them to fix up the ceiling over there.

AUBREY: Villatoro says it's one little step to building a strong community. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Miguelina's story was featured earlier this week, and if you missed it, you can find it by going to NPR's food blog, The Salt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.