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Can Gender Equity Solve Coffee’s Sustainability Problem?

Women focused on quality coffee create a prosperous model for a struggling industry

As many headlines over the past two years have suggested, the coffee industry is in trouble, most notably from the ill effects of climate change. When asked to identify some of the industry's greatest underlying threats, Kim Elena Ionescu, the  Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Sustainability Director, doesn’t fail to mention the rapid, crippling effects of rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns. But she goes a step further, citing coffee's commodity-centric production system, one that's intertwined with a major social problem. "Coffee economics rely on labor models that are vestiges of colonial systems that pay little to nothing for hand labor," says Ionescu, alluding to the cheap, temporary labor required every harvest.

Cheap labor is not exclusive to the large estates which, at their worst, look like modern reincarnations of the plantation system. Temporary labor, a role filled by women more often than men, is also common among smallholder farms, which account for eighty percent of global production. Coffee production, regardless of scale, continues to teeter on razor-thin profits, and women are too often the ones making sacrifices to keep a male-run industry afloat.

Women in Coffee Production

As temporary employees, women can expect meager remuneration and little protection against fraudulent acts such as wage theft or deceptive hiring practices. But, permanent workers are no strangers to hardship, either. Smallholder farms, essentially family-run operations, account for much of the permanent labor force. Working with the added pressure of making a business financially solvent, the women on these farms perform the year-round duties beyond harvest, often forfeiting a formal wage as capital is reinvested into the maintenance of the farm. Price paid for low-quality, commodity-grade coffee regularly fails to cover the necessary costs of property maintenance. "Fair Trade" coffees provides a slim buffer, but the premiums gained through this certification are managed by the trademark's co-operative. Specialty coffee can gain more than double the price of commodity coffee, but it requires more work and working capital.

2015 Cup of Excellence winner Astrid Medina (L). [Photo courtesy of Copyright FNC 2016]

From commodity to specialty, women till soil, prune trees, plant trees, pick coffee cherries, haul the take uphill, rake and cover coffee across drying patios, handle the books, and transport beans to exporting mills. At the mills, which lack the latest sorting technology, it is not unusual to see a row of women removing defects and debris from the conveyor belt of green coffee destined for exportable jute bags.

Because women are disproportionately over-represented at this impoverished level, gender inequity remains one of the most precarious attributes of coffee’s industrial infrastructure.

... women are too often the ones making sacrifices to keep a male-run industry afloat.

Yet, in spite of institutional adversity, exceptional cases of women professionals overcoming gender bias and ascending the ranks of a male-dominated industry are catalyzing the specialty coffee market in small flashes. Women on farms and in shops across the globe are stepping into rightful leadership roles, creating solutions to the cheap coffee problem by expanding value through the pursuit of quality.

Leading the Charge

Sunalini Menon is regarded as one of the first people, regardless of gender, to focus on quality coffee as we know it today, and she is, by many accounts, the first professional female coffee taster to open a business in Asia. After learning the industry while working for India’s coffee board, she set up the highly influential CoffeeLab India Ltd, a company that consults with coffee professionals in the subcontinent’s tropical region to advise on quality coffee training. Predating the wave of direct trade, her lab has, for twenty years, served as a quality beacon for coffee pioneers worldwide. Speaking in smooth, measured tones beneath a striking bob of silver hair, Menon posits that the industry doesn’t need mentors; instead it would benefit greatly from partnerships.

"If I can extend my hand and someone else catches hold of that hand, two hands together can make it so much stronger than just having my hand outstretched and trying to tell you give me your hand," Menon says. "It is self-confidence. It starts from you. It’s aided by environment, it’s aided by people around you, but you have to realize the confidence within yourself."

Across the coffee industry, women have begun to embrace this confidence, despite the fact that men have dominated the trade since time immemorial. Still, there are mountains to move before coffee leadership accurately reflects the contribution of women to the industry, though some organizations are making progress. In Indonesia, where women account for sixty percent of the labor but only receive ten percent of the income, Java Mountain Coffee, an all-female cooperative (responsible for managing Fair Trade certifications), broke ground just last year. Thanks to Java Mountain, for the first time, women in the area have been able to manage the premiums they earned from Fair Trade guidelines.

President of IWCA's Brazilian chapter, Josiane Cotrim. Photo by Jimmy Sherfey.

Still, Fair Trade premiums are not much more lucrative than the most base levels of coffee farming. In Uganda, for instance, men are flocking to the capital city of Kampala in hopes of seeking new financial opportunity and climbing out of the impoverished conditions so intertwined with coffee farming. To subsidize the city transition, men often take their family's farming funds, which leaves women with more work, and less working capital—a human resources rut that led the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative to design the Gender Applied Learning System [GALS]. Helping members visualize ownership and responsibility, GALS training resulted in more women leaders and higher quality coffee, ultimately bringing greater value to the cooperative.

While strides like these are made in the quiet march for equality in coffee territory across the globe, many women have yet to attain significant crucial leadership leverage (it’s important to remember the examples mentioned herein are exceptional).

In Colombia, women are not accurately represented in union leadership with respect to their presence in the workforce. Thirty percent of small farm owners in Colombia are women, making them eligible for candidacy in the Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation (FNC), yet they only hold eight percent of leadership roles at the state committee level, says Ana Maria Lleras, the FNC's Gender Program Coordinator. In addition to women-owned farms, the Federation engages with the untold number of women crucial to coffee growing families in hopes of encouraging more participation among them, building confidence in their job experience. Yet, even after overcoming this initial hurdle, women are still faced with the equally difficult task of navigating the rough cultural terrain that comes with the act of staking rightful claims on confidence or ownership.

"They have to work with men so that they don’t close opportunities," Lleras says. "We’ve seen, for example, something very interesting: men view the women as competition. 'She’s going to take my spot.' He knows that she has the experience, and the power games can sometimes be very interesting."

Lleras continues, "We have these preconceptions of women versus men, victims and assailants. We want to break this barrier and go a little further where everyone is a part of this deconstruction of masculine and feminine."

Because women are disproportionately over-represented at this impoverished level, gender inequity remains one of the most precarious attributes of coffee’s industrial infrastructure.

At the biannual International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) convention, held in Bogota this past October, Josiane Cotrim, President of IWCA's Brazilian chapter, said that strong organizations like the IWCA can aid the coffee woman’s journey to become more visible, gaining recognition for their vital roles in the industry, highlighting the many times they’ve kept the gates of quality coffee.

"After seven years, I asked why this wasn’t created, and people said, 'Ah because there was no women in Brazilian coffee,'" Cotrim recalls. "‘That’s funny: I grew up in a coffee farm and my mother, my whole family, we all worked. When the rain was about to come, and the coffee was in the patio—it takes two weeks to dry in the sun—I remember my mother waking up in the middle of the night, 'Oh, it’s raining let’s go!' My grandma, all my family, all my friends [worked the farm]."

Suspecting her case was not anomalous, she traveled to different areas of Brazil to organize women employed in the coffee sector. For Brazil’s inaugural IWCA meeting, just 17 registered to attend—over 70 participants showed up, including IWCA President Mery Santos.

Says Santos, "It’s my dream to see a connection or commercial network for small roasters and small producers. And we’re seeing it! If we listen to what Sunalini is saying, what they are doing in India and Japan, Costa Rica, what’s been done in Brazil, in Colombia with microlots, truly, for small producers that are women, the focus is specialty coffee—good quality microlots. No doubt, we are going to see more women winning the Cup of Excellence."

A coffee farm in Pijao, Quindío, Colombia. [Photo by Jimmy Sherfey]

The Coffee Alliance president observes more women maintaining control of the coffee beyond the menial task of picking at harvest, as they rise to positions of farm management. With control over the processing stage, where coffee is de-pulped, washed, fermented, and dried, women farmers can produce higher-valued coffee and have more control over the sale.

Beyond the Farm

Colombia’s 2015 Cup of Excellence (an competition that singles out the best coffees in a given region) annual champion, Astrid Medina, first received her education in this crucial quality production step, that is the processing stage. Her father did not want her mingling with men in the coffee fields because it was very common for young women to work there as well, starting romantic relationships and becoming pregnant at very young ages, says Medina.

Instead he reserved a selection of coffee he would de-pulp with a hand-cranked mill, and it was here that the future Cup of Excellence winner learned the nuances of processing. "I gained the feeling that I would be able to do it on my own. All of this corresponded to the work on the farm."

Medina went on to gain a 90-point score at Cup of Excellence, fetching $14.50 per pound of green coffee, which roasters have been selling at upwards of $30 for a 12-ouce bag of roasted Finca Buenavista.

Women on farms and shops across the globe are stepping into rightful leadership roles, creating solutions to the cheap coffee problem by expanding value through the pursuit of quality.

French Barista Charlotte Malaval, whose own competition run brought her to the World Barista Championship finals in 2015, applauds women farmers who have excelled in spite of gender inequity, which she notes can be more rigid at origin. At the International Women’s Coffee Alliance [in Colombia] we celebrated women in coffee, and I saw a lot of women coffee farmers," notes Malaval. "It’s awesome to see that because they are starting to be recognized as coffee professionals."

While a regrettable business climate continues to leave women on the roasted coffee side feeling disenfranchised—many have called foul over the disproportionate amount of men entering the US Coffee Championship finals every year. Malaval, who was the only woman in the final of the World Barista Championship, says people sharing her job title, regardless of gender, continue to struggle with perceptions of legitimacy. Faced with this scenario, she encourages more women to overcome fears and participate.

In the competitive realm, quality-focused professionals are succeeding in spite of a climate many feel is discriminatory against women. Former national competitors such as Eden-Marie Abramovicz and Camila Ramos have started their own coffee ventures. 2014 US Barista champion Laila Willbur hosted a qualifying round of the US Coffee Championships to facilitate discourse on what it means to be a women coffee professional and competitor. For Malaval, who recently won the 2016 French Barista title, competition is a great way to break the mold, all while aiming for coffee excellence.

"I think it helps a lot to have more confidence and to show your skills to the audience, to the judges, to all the producers, the roasters. If you go on stage, everyone is paying attention to what you are doing, and you start to exist," Malaval posits before expressing the hope that the gender debate will soon create its own obsolescence.

"For me, the best day will be when we do not have to celebrate women as 'women in the coffee industry,' rather just as a person, as a coffee professionalnot as a women."

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