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Empowering Women in Coffee

During a recent trip to the CECANOR Co-operative in Northern Peru, HENRY CLIFFORD met VICTOR ROJAS DIAZ, the co-founder of Café Femenino, a project that empowers women all over the world. 

Coffee may unite the women involved with Café Femenino, but this is not all they have in common. They have overcome adversity and the programme has helped them deal with barriers they face, change the way women are viewed, and the role they play in their society. The programme has been such a success that the World Bank recently asked the Café Femenino team to give a presentation on development at grassroots level.

This movement started in Peru where the idea was conceived by Isabel Uriarte Latorre. She launched the initiative, together with her husband, Victor Rojas Diaz, in 2003, working with the Organic Products Trading Company (OPTCO), a green coffee importer in the United States.

The partnership began as a means to create a market for Café Femenino coffee and to highlight and promote the values of the programme. Lessons were learned from the experience in Peru and the model was soon adapted across the coffee-growing belt, expanding to countries such as Bolivia, Mexico and Rwanda.

At the end of my visit to Peru, I caught up with Victor to learn more about Café Femenino and the support it offers women in coffee-producing regions.

HC: So how did it all begin?

VRD: My wife and I are children of small producers from the Andean part of the Cajamarca region so interest in small producers was natural. We met studying sociology at university in Chiclayo. Our case studies led us to examine all parts of society and we chose to study small producers of various different products to further understand the challenges they face and to see where we could provide assistance.

We founded an NGO called CICAP (Centro de investigación, capacitación, asesoria y promovia) in 1979 to gain funding for projects to provide training and assistance to small producers. We found a common theme, which was that they were often divided, lacked infrastructure, and lacked access to credit and expertise. Often, the middleman took advantage of these realities.

We gained experience in the field, first working with small producers of a variety of foods, then sugar refineries, and then producers of corn, cotton and mango. It wasn’t until 1992 – 13 years after CICAP was founded – that we started working with our first coffee producers in La Florida, Cajamarca. The idea was to help the producers better market their coffee and provide training and assistance to the producers in this region.

Back then what was the situation like for coffee in Peru? 

In 1969, there was a big push to reform agriculture and the government promoted the formation of cooperatives to replace the estates that existed in Peru up until then. Producers didn’t have the technical assistance to look after and improve their land and they didn’t receive this from the cooperatives. Cooperatives were poorly skilled at marketing their coffee and often did not pay producers on time, which led to many falling by the wayside.

In 1992 there was a massive price collapse and the NYC fell to US$45/qq and middlemen manipulated prices so that producers only received US$25/qq, which didn’t even cover the cost of production. As a response to this awful reality and producers’ suspicion of cooperatives, we promoted and founded ASPRO, the Association of Organic Producers of La Florida region (Associacion de productores organicos de la Florida), which was, for all intents and purposes, a cooperative in all but name. CICAP’s reputation helped convince producers of the value of forming ASPRO. ASPRO’s aim was to pool resources and share technical assistance, providing its members with access to finance and better marketing of their coffee.

This was not enough, however, as we very quickly realised that we needed to take control of more of the supply chain to ensure a fair deal for the producers. We found that people were not getting rewarded financially for producing better coffee.

Was exporting the answer?

It was. In 1992 and 1993 CICAP successfully bought and exported ASPRO’s coffee.

So how did it go? 

We realised that there was much more work to be done and more scope for us to improve. It was our first experience in buying and exporting coffee and this was evident with what happened next. Lack of experience with the NYC caused us to suffer a loss of $80,000 in 1994, as we bought coffee at US$ 250/qq which fell to US$150/qq two weeks later. We were then left with very expensive coffee, which we didn’t have a buyer for. The price collapse put everything we had been striving to achieve at risk.

How did you cope with this major setback? 

The structure and experience of CICAP was not sufficient to buy and sell coffee so we had to decide whether to stick to technical assistance, or find a way to market and sell the producers’ coffee more effectively. We went for the latter.

CICAP and the producers formed PROASSA, to take control of the marketing and exporting of the coffee at a more professional level. PROASSA and CICAP shared the responsibility of providing support to farmers, compliance with organic certs etc.

Were you still just working with producers in La Florida? 

No. We had expanded into other regions and were working with producers in Lambayeque, Cajamarca and Amazonas.

How does the CECANOR co-operative fit in? 

In 1999 we began thinking about Fairtrade and the benefits it could bring to the producers we work with. We talked to the Fairtrade organisation and they wanted one organisation to communicate with. At the time we were quite fragmented as we had our regional associations (ASPRO among various others), CICAP and PROASSA. PROASSA promoted the organisation abroad, coordinating certifications, monitoring quality at all stages of production, providing stability (at management level and financially), and covering all the needs of the members. CICAP depended on external funding so it helped out where it could, but was not able to provide support all the time.

We thought it was time to establish a cooperative that would fill the missing piece in the institutional puzzle and would unite all the producers under one umbrella. In 1999, CECANOR Cooperative (la Central de Cafetaleros del Nororiente) was founded.

The following year we obtained our Fairtrade certification. Offering coffee that was both organic and Fairtrade-certified was important for us as it helped us achieve our goals of producing coffee in a sustainable way and also one that offered some protection against the volatility of the NYC.

Obtaining the Fairtrade certification consolidated the strategic alliance of CICAP, PROASSA, CECANOR and OPTCO. We had been working closely with OPTCO since 1994 and they were a key partner in promoting and creating a market for coffee. Each facet of the alliance had very different roles that complemented each other according to their capacity and area of speciality. This network of institutions helped build an image of quality and prestige. The volume of coffee sold grew and grew and the long-term relationship with OPTCO is testament to the success of this alliance.

So when was Café Femenino born? 

Café Femenino has its roots in CICAP, where gender equality was always very important for us and was something that we strived to promote. We realised that women in coffee communities were often helping out at the farm and also running the house. However, in spite of all this, it was always the man who sold the coffee and received the money. Often, the money was not shared with the rest of the family.

An idea surfaced – how do we incorporate women into the management and sales aspect of the coffee? How do we improve the lives of women and empower them to lead their communities? We wanted to continue to offer a quality coffee, made by women, and to create and cement a space for women to lead the community and contribute to protecting the environment.

My wife, Isabel, proposed the idea of a women-only coffee to Garth & Gay Smith (co-founders of OPTCO) in 2003. In conjunction with them, the name and logo of Café Femenino was launched and in 2004 we sold our first container of Café Femenino coffee to OPTCO. We also gave a presentation about the programme at the SCAA Event that year.

Additionally, there is also the foundation. Garth & Gay Smith established the Café Femenino Foundation in 2004 in the US. It’s a licensed, non-profit foundation which has continued to raise funds for grant requests from women in coffee-producing regions around the world. The roasters who buy Café Femenino coffee are required to contribute donations to the Café Femenino Foundation to fund these projects.

Café Femenino has highlighted the hard work of women that was often not visible. This recognition has given women respect and self-esteem, and has enabled them to participate in and make decisions that they were previously denied. In communities where the programme is present, abuse and marginalisation have been greatly reduced.

How do you take part and how is the premium raised? 

Women coffee producers have the opportunity to be part of the Café Femenino programme if they have a plot of coffee and are willing to comply with the norms of the Café Femenino programme, Fairtrade, and organic coffee production standards and requirements. They must also play an active role in the development of their community. The premium of Café Femenino Fairtrade Organic coffee is split by US$30c/lb for organic

production, US$20c/lb for Fairtrade, and US$3c/lb for the Café Femenino. As you can see, the Fairtrade and organic premiums are essential to Café Femenino. Additionally, organic production contributes to the health and wellbeing of the family and the environment where coffee is grown.

When did Café Femenino go global? 

To promote Café Femenino, with the support of CORDAID (Dutch development organisation) and in conjunction with OPTCO, we held in 2009 a summit in Chiclayo which all the international partners attended. Since then, OPTCO has expanded the Café Femenino programme to many more countries. This has benefited many women around the world, providing them with the social standards that have been established and the training and assistance that have been proven to improve coffee quality.

What does the future hold for Café Femenino? 

We hope to expand on the number of women in the programme and continue to promote greater gender equality in families, cooperatives, and communities the world over.


This article was originally published via SCAE.


Image via Pixabay, CC0