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Mujeres Cafeteras

Colombian women have always been integral to coffee farming. A new program is helping them become businesswomen in their own right.

by SG Studios

In September 2019, on top of a windy mountain in the Andes, overlooking stunning vistas of jungles and farms, Lucía Álvarez invited her American guests to imagine what was to come. Huila, the region in rural southwest Colombia where she lives, rises over 6,000 feet above sea level. Getting there from Bogotá requires a flight and then can take hours on bumpy mountain roads. Its thousands of farms, carved into inclines, are barely distinguishable from the jungle that surrounds them.

Álvarez hoped to one day welcome visitors to a beautiful guesthouse; for now, the guests sat on plastic chairs under a green tent. But the views were still stunning, and the tables Álvarez laid gave a sense of her vision, their festive green gingham tablecloths bedecked with juices, all manner of fruits and huevos pericos. Each place setting included a handwritten place card and small sachet, a souvenir for each guest to take home. “This is the lot where the house is going to be built and where I’ll have my sustainable agriculture business,” she said, gesturing toward the grounds. “I’m planning to open a cooking school, so I can teach guests. My goal is to teach the community how to live in an organic way.”

Álvarez took her guests on a tour of the farm, showing them her coffee trees and explaining how she picks the red “cherries” from them by hand but leaves the green cherries and the flowering plants to mature. Having trees at different stages is challenging, as it makes picking more labor-intensive. Álvarez’s life was not simple; she was living with neighbors at the time and was in the midst of a divorce, but she had a huge smile as she showed her guests what she was building. Her farm is only 1.5 hectares—a tiny plot by comparison with some of her neighbors’—but it was hers entirely to develop however she chose.

Her guests were coffee industry insiders from Peet’s Coffee, the company that helped launch the specialty coffee movement in the US, and from Sustainable Harvest, a coffee importer focused on strengthening the role of coffee producers like herself. “This is my life-long dream,” she told the visitors as she welcomed them to the farm. It was a dream of which she’d often despaired. Now, with the help of a new institution focused on women’s entrepreneurship, she was almost there.

Coffee farmer Lucía Álvarez stands on her farm, La Herencia.
Photo credit: courtesy of Sustainable Harvest

***

Wine may be fancier and tea more relaxing, but when it comes to complex beverages, coffee is at the top of the list. The coffee supply chain spans the globe and includes numerous actors: coffee growers bring their beans to mills; the mills pass them along to exporters; the exporters sell them to the importers who deliver them to roasters. It’s the coffee roasters who ultimately package the coffee that ends up in coffee shops, restaurants and supermarket aisles. While coffee producing countries like Colombia are in the global south, the roasters are usually located in wealthier regions in Europe or the US. It’s at the roasters that the big money usually gets made, yet the coffee farms bear most of the risk, as it’s in the hard work of growing and processing the beans that small mistakes can hurt the quality of the beans. While coffee is a $200 billion industry, only a tenth of that money goes to the coffee producing countries. More troublingly, due to oversupply, in recent years, the market price of coffee has not always been more than the cost of growing it. Young coffee farmers in 2020 often only make half of what their grandparents made, while the cost of running a farm continues to rise.

It’s possible to move out of poverty solely through farming coffee, but it’s extremely difficult and requires a lot of luck, in addition to skill and hard work. To start, farmers must have the right soil, at the right elevation. There, they need to produce large quantities of high-quality beans by adhering to the best practices for pest control, pruning and the other aspects of their profession. And even then, farmers can still lose big, reliant as they are on the global market of supply and demand. Coffee is traded in a futures exchange, much like sugar, corn and other crops, and since 2000, coffee has sold there for as little as $0.48 per pound and as much as $3, while in countries such as Colombia, producing it typically costs between a $1 and $1.50 per pound.

“We’re putting too much weight and responsibility on coffee alone to be the savior” for its farmers, says Jorge Cuevas, chief coffee officer at Sustainable Harvest. “Coffee certainly has a role,” but Cuevas advocates for diversified crops. “You get a more cohesive approach to development,” he says. “You just get better distribution of income.”

The challenges of the coffee market are particularly intense for women. Typically, women contribute the majority of labor in the early stages of coffee production, yet men typically do the selling and negotiating and control the income as a result. In 1958, the Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia launched the Juan Valdez campaign, which established the country as one of the world’s major sources of coffee. Their iconic image of a man and his mule standing in front of a mountain became known around the world. That there was no sign of Ms. Valdez was not lost on the female coffee producers of Colombia, as Cuevas learned when he arrived in 1997 to meet with organic coffee producers. “Ladies were the leaders of the organic movement,” he says. They would point to the Juan Valdez logo and tell Cuevas, “You see? Women are invisible. We don’t even make it to the level where they put the mule.”

***

Álvarez still remembers the coffee farm of her childhood, where her mother and father worked the land while she went to school, learning to read and day dreaming about where her studies might take her.

By the time she was seven years old, the farm was gone. Her father disappeared without a trace, a tragic and all-too-common occurrence in the region during the height of Colombia’s civil conflict. Álvarez’s mother moved her five children to Garzón, the nearest city, where Álvarez herself began cleaning homes and doing other odd jobs to help keep the family going. The prospect of education remained alluring. At 13, while working at a store, Álvarez noticed a small flyer for night classes. She began attending school from 6PM to 10PM, making the terrifying journey home every night through dangerous late-night city streets, running the whole way, holding her backpack in front of her and carrying her shoes to stay quiet and minimize the risk of a dangerous encounter. At the time, she says, her dream was to finish her studies and perhaps to go into accounting. She was especially good at math.

“I didn’t exist; I didn’t have any life at all.”

But such a career was not to be. By 17, Álvarez was married; soon after, she became a mother to two children. She no longer expected she would get to study further; instead, she focused on helping her husband find opportunities to advance his education, while she took care of the farm her father-in-law had given the young couple. Like most women in the region, she picked the coffee and then went through the steps of preparing it to be sold, without ever having a role in market transactions. Her household adhered to traditional gender roles; her husband had the final say on finances and important decisions. “I was a person who used to do what other people said I should do,” she says looking back. “I didn’t exist; I didn’t have any life at all.”

Álvarez did take joy in providing for her family, hoping her children would have the educational opportunities she never had. To improve her family’s livelihood, however, she would need to improve the farm. It was her mother, who had also returned to coffee farming, who told Álvarez about a cooperative that could help. Based in Huila, Coocentral is a 45-year-old organization that prides itself on selling excellent coffee beans while helping its members improve their lives. It has long offered technical assistance and numerous other forms of support to its members, as well as transparent payments based on clear quality standards. The cooperative had recently forged a close relationship with Sustainable Harvest as part of that global importer’s focus on helping coffee farmers develop skills to better advocate and leverage their own voice in the coffee industry. Álvarez didn’t know it yet, but in the wake of her making contact with Coocentral, her whole world was about to change.

***

In 2013, Coocentral’s General Manager, Mauricio Rivera, who hails from Huila, was attending a Let’s Talk Coffee event. These gatherings are sponsored by Sustainable Harvest, as a way to gather together actors from throughout the coffee supply chain and create stronger relationships among them. In the middle of a crowded hallway, Rivera made a beeline for David Griswold, the founder of Sustainable Harvest. “I know your model,” he said. “We want to be a Sustainable Harvest supplier. We are going to become one of your biggest and most reliable suppliers. We’re from Huila, and Huila’s the biggest producer of coffee in Colombia.”

The co-op’s approach fit neatly with Sustainable Harvest’s ethos; the global coffee supply company focuses on empowering coffee producers to better leverage their power in the market. With offices around the world, they run comprehensive training programs designed to teach producers the standards by which their coffee is judged and the best ways to grow greater yields of high- quality coffee. And like Rivera, Sustainable Harvest was especially interested in helping to raise the profile of female coffee growers. With help from Sustainable Harvest, Coocentral launched Mujeres Cafeteras, a special brand of coffee for the co-op’s women coffee growers, while offering those women comprehensive training programs on how to grow top-quality coffee.

“Learning was the thing I wanted most in my life.”

Lessons initially focused on showing the women how they could grow more and better coffee. While coffee is not indigenous to Colombia, the land high up in the Andes is uniquely well suited to grow the beans: “Just naturally gifted for coffee,” says Cuevas. Still, it’s easy to mess up the process. The coffee plant is technically an evergreen shrub, and when the tree flowers, a bud forms that eventually creates a fruit, called the cherry. The coffee bean is the seed of the cherry. Fully ripe cherries, which look a lot like large cranberries, need to be picked at just the right moment. The bean sits in the center, amidst a parchment layer and “mucilage,” a jelly-like substance. To get the bean, the cherries are fermented so that the mucilage separates from the parchment, then washed. The wet parchment containing the bean then gets dried on the patio, where it’s raked in the sun and covered up any time it rains. At that point, the coffee goes to a mill like Coocentral, where the beans are processed further and packed into burlap sacks.

“There’s lots of things that can happen,” says Griswold. “You can pick the wrong color beans. You might have pests or disease or all kinds of challenges around the bean. You might let it spend too much time in the fermentation tank and create problems. You might not let it spend enough time, you might not let it dry, or you let it rain on the beans when they’re out on the patio and you create a flavor called phenol.”

Álvarez wanted to join; she asked the engineers at Coocentral to talk to her husband and convince him to let her join the group. The training meant travelling to Garzón, a trek that involved taking long bus trips through the mountains. A number of women could only convince their husbands to give them just enough money for the transportation to the classes, so they arrived without lunch to eat. “It was worth it,” says Álvarez. “It was our happy place.”

From the beginning, she loved the classes. The women learned the key measures for judging the quality of coffee beans and the best practices for caring for her trees. Every class included new techniques, and the quality of their coffee got better and better. Thanks to Coocentral’s relationship with the coffee importer Sustainable Harvest, Peet’s Coffee started buying the majority of their beans, and soon took a deep interest in further supporting the Mujeres Cafeteras program.

Coffee farms etched into the mountains of Huila.
Photo credit:Brian Kimmel, courtesy of Sustainable Harvest

The group began to bond almost immediately. Given the rural area and the difficult roads, the opportunity to gather with other female coffee farmers meant a lot. Like many of the other women in the program, Álvarez found herself becoming more outgoing as she developed deep friendships with the women around her. Her life had been limited to her farm, her market and her home. Spending time with other women brought out confidence in many of them. They became more comfortable speaking in the classes, sharing their thoughts and ideas. Álvarez increasingly discovered others beginning to look to her for leadership. When some hesitated to continue attending classes, getting pressure from their husbands to quit, Álvarez would be among the first to encourage them to stick with it.

But at home, tensions rose. Of the Mujeres Cafeteras participants, roughly a third live in households like Álvarez’s with deeply rooted gender roles. As Álvarez gained confidence, she wanted more say in decision-making. She and her husband fought constantly. Eventually, her husband told her she had a choice: “Your trainings or your family.”

Álvarez made her decision. “Learning was the thing I wanted most in my life,” she says.

***

In April of 2019, Álvarez stood in front of a packed room at the original Peet’s store at the corner of Walnut and Vine in Berkeley, California, getting ready to tell her story to an audience of Peet’s employees and customers. Until preparing for the trip, she had never before left Huila. Now she saw where her beans wound up, sitting in climate-controlled warehouses, carefully watched over by the roaster. When she saw a sack of Mujeres Cafeteras coffee, she gave it a huge hug. Álvarez dates her new life from the moment Peet’s invited her to travel to the US as a representative of the group. “I gained a new vision, a new perspective,” she says. “I am a woman who can make my own decisions.”

Founded 55 years ago, Peet’s Coffee was integral to bringing high quality specialty coffee beans to the US. Previously, Americans drank light roasted coffee with little concern for the quality of the beans. Dark roasted specialty coffee was largely only available in Europe. One Berkeley journalist called company founder Alfred Peet “the big bang” of specialty coffee in the US. The company spawned a new era of high-quality coffee, and its own beans continue to be roasted in its signature dark style and delivered fresh to its coffee bars, grocery stores and businesses. Today, the company still centers every decision on ensuring its coffee is the best quality and then moves on from there.

The idea was to help the women create business plans that would go beyond growing the beans.

Peet’s prides itself on its ethical approach to business—an approach that’s integrally linked to its commitment to excellent coffee. Specialty coffee commands premium prices; farmers who can sell quality beans are far less exposed to the whims of the market. While the commercial coffee price can fluctuate drastically, leaving farmers in precarious predicaments, specialty coffee has a floor price. Peet’s Coffee works with farmers around the world to teach better agronomy practices so the farms can remain economically viable.

The company has dozens of social responsibility projects around the world, ranging from multi-national efforts to improve gender equity to clinics and child care facilities designed to help coffee producers. But Phil Maloney, the senior director of coffee purchasing at Peet’s Coffee, was looking for an opportunity to tackle the cyclical nature of the poverty cycle in coffee producing communities. “There’s been an awakening in the industry,” says Maloney. “This inequity in the supply chain cannot go on for future generations. We just can’t have grandparents and parents unable to make a living, then expect the grandchildren to want to go into coffee production.”

Mujeres Cafeteras coffee combines socially responsible ethos with exceptional coffee, making it a slam dunk for Maloney. In addition to increasing gender equity in coffee, the program also helps build more sustainability for the industry overall. Globally, women spend 90 percent of their earned income on the family, while men only spend 30 to 40 percent. By paying female coffee producers directly, therefore the Mujeres Cafeteras also helps make coffee a more sustainable path out of poverty for the family as a whole—one of Peet’s primary goals. Peet’s was soon buying the majority of Mujeres Cafeteras output; the coffee roaster also wanted to know how they could further support the women behind the beans.

Together, Peet’s, Sustainable Harvest and Coocentral began sketching out plans for a program unlike any other in the coffee industry. Typically, coffee roasters fund either basic humanitarian needs, like wells for clean water, or fund initiatives directly related to coffee, like sponsoring new equipment or agronomy trainings. But the new Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship wasn’t going to be about coffee directly. Instead, it would partner with university faculty, who would teach the women business skills and help them generate plans for diversified revenue streams. Rather than teaching them about coffee, as Coocentral’s other programs would continue to do, the idea for this initiative was to help the women create business plans that would go beyond growing the beans. This was a different kind of project from what American coffee roasters typically fund. “We were giving the women something you can’t photograph,” says Karla Quiñones, the social impact coordinator for Sustainable Harvest.

To support the initiative, Maloney decided the next Peet’s Anniversary Blend would be Mujeres Cafeteras coffee—and that the proceeds from sales would fund the new program. To kickstart the partnership, Peet’s asked Quiñones to select one of the women to travel to California to meet Peet’s employees and serve as an ambassador for the Mujeres Cafeteras. Even though Álvarez had never before left the rural region, Quiñones was certain she would be the perfect choice. “She knows how to speak about the women and how to be their true ambassador,” says Quiñones. “She always spoke about ‘us;’ she never said, ‘I need this, I need that.’” Álvarez kept a diary, noting everything that happened each day, so that when she came home, she could share the entire experience with the rest of the Mujeres Cafeteras.

The lavender bags of Anniversary Blend smelled beautiful: beans transformed from the red cherries Álvarez and her fellow female farmers picked off the trees. Better yet was the acknowledgement of their work, for all to see: “In support of women coffee farmers of Huila, Colombia.”

The new program officially got underway after Álvarez returned. All 100 spots were filled. Like Álvarez, most of them had limited formal education; only 17 percent had finished high school. The oldest woman in the program was 78. While they were dedicated to improving their farms, they did not think of that critical income source as a formal business. “Before the program, I didn’t know how many trees I had,” says Álvarez.

A program to teach the women business skills and help them generate plans for diversified revenue streams, The Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship, was born. To teach the program, Quiñones formed a partnership with Universidad Ean. The university has extensive experience in business innovation and had a successful program teaching Bogotá street vendors how to create business plans. However, its faculty had never worked specifically with the coffee industry. “We had to learn everything around a cup of coffee,” says Rocio Castillo, the coordinator of EAN’s impact program.

Because of duties at home, the women could not attend traditional classes; instead, once a month, they gathered to spend 7AM until 5PM learning with the professors. In between, they worked on assignments and watched tutorials. “I was a little worried about them initially,” says Castillo. “I told Sustainable Harvest a class from 7 to 5 is almost like a master’s class because of the intensity level. And these women weren’t accustomed to having these very long classes.” The faculty decided they would create a structure with a change in activity every three hours so the women wouldn’t get tired. They were shocked to discover engagement was never an issue. The women consistently showed up prepared and stayed engaged.

The professors sought to “co-create” the curriculum rather than impose a clear framework; reflecting the local context and incorporating the women into the process gave them better odds of success. They began working with the students to identify potential areas for business opportunities in their geographic area, defining key concepts like entrepreneurship and sustainability, before walking through the components of a business model, like goals, financing and target audience.

“There’s been an awakening in the industry,”

“We had to fight traditional paradigms that limited the women,” says Castillo. “Problems they had to overcome like the violence in the family, the violence around them, the armed conflict they’d had in the past. The division between women and men, generational problems.”

Unaccustomed to their wives being away for so long, men began showing up to see what their wives were up to all day. Seeing the academic nature of the gatherings, several disapproved. Some decided they would start attending. “The sons arrived with their mothers, the husbands arrived with their wives to follow the process. The men testified to the value of these women within the family and the farm,” says Castillo. “These were very, very significant things.”

By their fourth gathering, the students were building out their own business models, including social, environmental and economic components. Their business ideas ranged enormously, from modest designs for diversifying crops on the farm to ambitious plans for opening coffee bars and eco-travel lodges.

As her separation and then divorce proceeded, Álvarez’s life was increasingly precarious. Her husband had locked her out of the house, and she was living with her neighbor. However, thanks to help from her mother, she owned a small plot of land. Her ambitions were enormous. Through the program, she began sketching out her business plan: a farm with diversified crops, including but not limited to coffee, an Airbnb eco-lodge to welcome guests, a cooking school where she would teach the importance of sustainable, natural farming.

All 100 women ultimately graduated from the program. 54 completed full business plans and began their next steps to make the plans real. At the graduation ceremony, each woman walked across the stage to receive a diploma from Universidad Ean. “For them to have that diploma, it’s everything,” says Quiñones. “It’s everything everyone said they couldn’t do.”

***

Under the green tent on his mother’s land in Huila, Diego Álvarez stood in front of the Peet’s visitors to share his own story. Initially, he’d taken his father’s side in his parents’ separation, angry that his mother would disrupt the status quo. But as he watched her, he told the visitors, “I saw the impact that this educational journey has brought for her. I know that for her to accomplish [her goals] fully, she needs the support of her family, and I am that support,” he said. Diego explained that he had joined the center as an observer so that he and his mother could both develop their “entrepreneurial mindset.”

The Peet’s employees were awed by what they heard. While some, like Maloney and Matt Broscio, Peet’s social responsibility manager, regularly go to coffee producing locations, others on the trip were new to this side of coffee. Maloney sought women leaders throughout Peet’s to attend the trip; in the end, seven women from across the company joined Broscio and Maloney for three days on their visit to Huila.

In addition to visiting La Herencia, the “Peetniks’’ went to other farms and arrived at the Coocentral mill to see coffee beans with parchment get processed into the unroasted beans that ultimately arrive at Peet’s headquarters in burlap sacks. Best of all, they attended a class of at the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship, sitting with the women and immediately finding connections. Molly Matles, a senior employee engagement and programs specialist, sat down at one table and, using her high school Spanish, started chatting with one of the students. They soon found each other on Facebook and traded WhatsApp information to stay in touch.

“The purpose of the trip was to create this exchange and this understanding between the Peet’s family and the group of women,” says Broscio. “It was solely focused on getting to know the project and getting to know the people involved in the project.” Emotions were high as Mujeres Cafeteras women shared their stories and the ways the program had impacted them. “That level of exchange is really unique and not something that I have typically seen in my trips to origin,” says Broscio. “We created the space for that in this trip, and it made it really, really unique and special. I think that’s what the industry could do more of, frankly.”

COVID limited the Women’s Center programing for 2020, but Peet’s and Sustainable Harvest are working with the students to offer alternative programming. Álvarez, who has been able to move back into her home, has turned it into a hub for women from the program who live nearby. Their goal is to eventually help all the women who are part of the Mujeres Cafeteras brand go through the Women’s Center program. Sales from Peet’s Anniversary Blend remain their primary funding source.

Maloney doesn’t want that to change any time soon. “The worst thing for coffee farmers is to just come in and buy their coffee one time and then leave,” he says. “I want a long-term relationship with Mujeres Cafeteras. We have generational relationships at Peet’s going back 40 years.” And thanks to the experiences from the trip, he’s got plenty of support.

Meanwhile, Álvarez continues to work as a spokeswoman for Coocentral. Before COVID stopped travel, Peet’s brought her back to California a second time to meet with clients and talk about the Peet’s Anniversary Blend’s Mujeres Cafeteras coffee. One client asked her how he could differentiate the Anniversary Blend from other coffee. Álvarez answered without hesitation: “It’s delicate like we are. It’s strong like mujeres cafeteras. And when you drink it, just like when you hear our story, it leaves an everlasting note.”

Support the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship by purchasing Peet’s Anniversary Blend 2021

CONTRIBUTOR

SG Studios

SG Studios is Stranger's Guide's brand studio. Drawing on our extensive experience in print and digital media, we work with organizations and companies to craft resonant stories from around the world.

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