Isabel Latorre left the mountains of northern Peru for a larger city when she was just a child, but each time she returned to visit her family, she was struck by the way the women in this coffee-growing region were treated. “At home, they are not part of the decisions…” she explains in Spanish, through a translator. “Men have machismo and are aggressive. Women are submissive and accept abuses because that’s what we saw our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts endure.”
Years later, when Latorre became an organic coffee importer for the Vancouver, Washington-based Organic Products Trading Company (OPTCO), she returned to the northern Peru mountains and noticed the same gender dynamic in the fields: The women in the villages worked tirelessly on their husbands’ farms—while also tending to their homes and their children. And far too often, the men spent their paychecks before coming home, leaving the women little or nothing for their hard work. To Latorre, it was as if the women had no value. Latorre was vexed by the hard-working female coffee growers’ situation and wondered what she could do to improve their lives. Latorre noticed as she watched the farmers working that the women took more care than the men did as they harvested and processed the beans. She wondered, What if we separated the coffee the women grew and sold it as a standalone brand? The coffee was sure to be an excellent product, and perhaps it would give the women a measure of economic freedom.
When Latorre presented her idea to Gay Smith, wife of OPTCO founder Garth Smith and the company’s chief financial officer, Smith jumped on board. In 2004, they launched Café Femenino with a group of 464 women growers from the cooperative in Peru. OPTCO charges two cents more per pound for these beans than for the other organic beans they sell—and mandates that the extra two cents goes back to the individual female growers. Roasters who buy the coffee, explains Smith, are “required to tell its story in their sales and marketing, and to involve women in the roasting, too. We wanted to create a string of women helping women.” She also requires roasters to donate a portion of the proceeds from the coffee’s sales to either a local domestic violence organization or to the Café Femenino Foundation, which offers the growers small grants to pay for school supplies, healthcare improvements, and secondary incomes like sewing and small-animal farming. “When I thought about the abuse these women [growers] suffered,” says Smith of the project’s inception, “I couldn’t think of anything more powerful to change their perception of themselves than to allow the work that they were doing to help other women.”
In starting out, Smith was uncertain if the idea would be successful. “We didn’t know what the reception would be in the industry. When we first started, I told our growers that we’re really going to make history and the program wouldn’t work unless they grew excellent coffee. The growers took that to heart.”
Today, Café Femenino has 5,000 women growers in eight countries that sell to 80 roasters—and the women growers are using the extra income to invest in their homes and communities. More importantly, it has changed women’s lives internally: “Café Femenino has given me the opportunity to show how important I am,” says Lily Leiva Alvitez, a grower. Rosaria Guevara Diaz, another grower, agrees: “Café Femenino values women,” she says. “I’ve learned that self-esteem gives us the right to speak.”
“This change is noticeable in the women,” says Smith. “At our first meeting, they hung their heads. They weren’t used to talking. Now we have women who truly have confidence and grace. They help each other to pick coffee and watch the children; they have a place to come together and develop friendships. They value themselves now, and their husbands are saying they see their wives differently now that they are income-earners.”
While Café Femenino has the most comprehensive program to support its female growers, it’s not the only coffee that’s brewing change for women. Sustainable Harvest, an importer based in Portland, Oregon, worked with women farmers of a Nicaraguan coop called Soppexca and Peet’s Coffee to develop another brand that charges a premium that goes right back to the growers: Las Hermanas (The Sisters).
When the brand launched in 2004, it sold 250 bags to Peet’s; in 2007, it sold 1,000 bags to the coffee chain (one bag weighs anywhere from 130-150 pounds, at about 32 cups a pound). With the brand’s success, the health and status of Soppexca’s women growers has drastically improved. The coop has even partnered with an NGO to screen women in their community for cervical and uterine cancer, and offers credit for women to buy land. They’ve also pioneered a gender equality policy, offering training around family violence in schools and encouraging committees to keep an eye out for overt sexism among members.
Café Femenino and Las Hermanas signal a groundswell in an industry that is both historically male-dominated and massive—it’s the second largest traded commodity after oil. Over the last generation, women are increasingly able to control property due to changes in inheritance laws in coffee-growing regions. “Daughters are taking over from their fathers,” says Tracy Ging of Specialty Coffee Association of America. “Women were involved before, but they wouldn’t have had any management or legal rights. It’s only been during the last 15 or so years—this last generational shift—that we’ve seen women in ownership positions.”
And as women have entered the industry in greater numbers across all sectors—including the buying, exporting, and roasting side—there’s increasing interest about women on the growing side. That interest—coupled with easier communication and more importers and roasters visiting the farms—has created new business partnerships and lasting relationships between women growers/managers and women buyers/roasters.
A final major factor of the rise of women in the coffee business is the explosion of its specialty market (think Starbucks and your local coffeehouse, rather than the canned coffee cans available at the grocery store). As this market has grown from catering solely to coffee connoisseurs to marketing to everyone, consumers want to know where coffee comes from, who grew it, if it’s Fair Trade certified, and how workers are treated in the growing region. “Coffee is one of the few commodities where people are interested in the backstory,” says Jeanne Sinclair, owner of Big Bend Coffee Roasters, a small, organic-only roaster in Marfa, Texas. It’s a system that helps everyone. The customer is willing to spend more to be assured that her daily dose of caffeine is not only better-tasting but also grown under positive, fair conditions; the farmers are inspired to take better care of their coffee, knowing that it must be of a high enough quality to satisfy the customers paying that higher price. Café Femenino is a bestseller for Big Bend, says Sinclair, because “it’s a great coffee—and it has a great story.”
“As women continue to emerge as forces within the industry, initiatives like Café Feminino and Las Hermanas are likely just the beginning in this movement of women coming together to improve their own lives, as well as their families and their communities through coffee. While Smith doesn’t have specific plans to branch out into other products, she hopes the Café Femenino model will catch on for importers of other crops grown in these areas. “Café Femenino is using a commercial product to create an internal change—the transformation that occurs when you value a product made by women,” she says. “And that’s a concept that could be applied to other products: There could be a Banana Femenino or a Chocolate Femenino...”