The Cause of Empowerment


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[I]t can be thrilling to consider the breadth and depth of our industry. There are moments, as a coffee professional, when I find that the distance coffee traveled on the path from farm to cup is not only fascinating logistically, but also romantic. We can imagine the decisions we make on the consuming side of the coffee business unfurl as a ribbon that wends around and through international borders, shipping lines, and commodity markets, coming to rest in far away soil. It is inspiring in a consuming country to see coffee professionals pulling the ribbon in one direction to impact the coffee and those who grow it on the other end in a producing country.

The level of care, even intimacy, with which people in specialty coffee consider their product is one of the reasons I am in the coffee business. The other reason is the people. Coffee is a commodity that is meant to be shared. For many years, I shared coffee from behind a bar in a café. I shared coffee with employees, customers, vendors, and producers, and this act of sharing a drink—and ultimately a commodity—was the foundation of relationships. When the tightly held ribbon of my life began to fray and I took steps to leave a marriage riddled with domestic violence, the relationships I formed in the coffee industry helped guide my path to a safe and healthy future. We all have cause to rebuild our lives at different points. I chose coffee to help rebuild mine. In the process of doing this, I became keenly aware that domestic violence, psychological and economic abuse, and gender inequality reach across the globe, and that many women tied to this commodity can use coffee to empower change in their lives as I had.

We all have cause to rebuild our lives at different points. I chose coffee to help rebuild mine.

When we discuss causes in coffee, we make environmental, social, and labor issues regular topics of conversation. They affect every coffee-growing region and have been given enough attention that consumers will pay more for coffees they know address these concerns in ethical ways. But the issues specifically related to gender inequality are less often singled out.

According to a 2008 International Trade Centre report, women are typically responsible for seventy percent of fieldwork in coffee-producing countries that rely on non-mechanized farming, harvesting, and sorting. Although they represent the majority of the workforce at the production level, women typically only own between ten and fifteen percent of the coffee harvested and traded or the land on which it is grown. In our industry, seven of the top ten coffee-producing countries in the world are in the bottom half of countries ranked by gender equality, and all are in the bottom two-thirds.

In a number of coffee-producing countries women do not have equal rights to own land or to control income. In some cases, laws are in place that restrict a women’s financial rights. In other places, cultural norms limit women’s financial freedom. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 study “Gender Equality in Education, Employment, and Entrepreneurship,” equal access to ownership rights and income is described as crucial because it allows a woman to control economic decisions for herself and her family. The same study concludes that women who have at least some control of their own economic decisions tend to also control decisions about fertility, support their children’s education, and save money to re-invest in local economies. Furthermore, World Bank studies from the same year indicate that women entrepreneurs in developing countries, like those that produce much of the world’s coffee, are also more likely to invest money in human capital and continuing education, which, in turn, supports economic growth.

In short, money matters. Having an ownership stake in a business or access to income creates a measure of equality. Domestic violence and abuse are about control and power—they are about gender inequality. When equality is lacking, there are higher instances of abuse, physical violence toward women, and femicide. A woman’s access to her own income can be a cornerstone of foundational support from which she can move past abuse and confront inequality.

In my own life, I shared the experience of many women around the world in that my home was not a sanctuary, but a place marked by shame, fear, and violence. Starting my own coffee company was an important step to move past a history of domestic violence. Pier Coffee began in the most modest of locations: in a laundry room converted to a cold-brew coffee factory. I brewed and packaged cold brew that I then delivered from the back of my car on an early morning delivery route. This nano-company was a lifeline in part because it provided some income for me and my children and in part because it sent me out into the world to form and strengthen relationships over coffee, just as I had done in a café. I learned that even though I started my business in a developed country with laws against gender inequality, it was my improved financial stability and pride in ownership that led to a transformation from living in fear and silence to walking with strength and finding a voice.

While this is my experience in a coffee-consuming country, this type of work can impact women along all parts of the coffee commodity chain. Coffee gave me the support and strength to leave a destructive relationship and change my life. I knew that if I could buy coffee that was not only ethical according to environmental or Fair Trade designations, but was grown by women, I could affect change and help women who may have had similar experience as me. I want to support, in my own, small way, women who are growing quality, specialty coffee in the equivalent of their laundry rooms. In the coffee-producing world there are women like Aida Batlle or the recent Colombia Cup of Excellence winner, Carmen Cecilia Montoya Patiño, whose relentless professionalism and beautiful coffee set them apart from many producers, and not because of their gender.

We need to place an emphasis on supporting women in our value chain that is equal to the weight we place on other ethical considerations.

I assumed I could call friends in the industry who regularly travel to origin and they could easily rattle off names of women-run co-ops or point me in the right direction of farms where sustainability also meant gender equality. I even naively assumed that there was already a sticker plastered on twelve-ounce bags at grocery stores that pointed to coffee grown by women. There wasn’t. Coffees grown by women, coffees that would support women, can be found at specialty importers, but they aren’t always available. When they are, the premium paid for them often goes to support women’s health initiatives and social programs in the region where the coffee is grown. That is fantastic. But tracking down this coffee doesn’t come with the ease of finding a coffee that benefited the environment or supported workers generally. As coffee professionals, we need to place an emphasis on supporting women in our value chain that is equal to the weight we place on other ethical considerations.

Our industry isn’t blind to the issues facing the women who grow coffee. Among the work that is being done, there is the Café Feminino Foundation, which supports women in coffee-producing communities by offering grants to projects that advance women’s integration into the political, social, and occupational fabric of their communities and improve their status. There is also the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, whose work is devoted to improving the lives of women by empowering the women who grow coffee to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives. The IWCA brings the question about women in coffee into focus by driving the conversation about gender in coffee from farm to cup. At SCAA each year, the IWCA hosts a vibrant breakfast that highlights the work being done by women at origin. Women whose work is on the producing side of the commodity ribbon sit alongside women who drive decisions on the consuming end. The shared business conversations are a clear example of the power of peer-to-peer support along the supply chain.

These are all remarkable and impactful efforts by important players in the coffee community, but there is more we must do in consuming countries to support women at other points on the coffee commodity chain. Although the principle for this support is compelling enough, it also makes good business sense.

A 2013 Nielson report concludes that, in the US, women will control nearly two-thirds of consumer purchasing power over the next decade. Globally, women control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending. This means that women, especially in developed countries, have a tremendous say in the way dollars are spent at the retail level. Women are more likely to choose which bag of coffee is selected off a shelf at the grocery store and more likely to be a customer in a café. Women, and, encouragingly, millennials of both sexes, are more likely to take ethical considerations into account when making a purchase. To me, this all represents a tremendous opportunity to harness the buying power of women in developed coffee-consuming countries to support women in coffee-producing countries. Coffee is about sharing. It is about small conversations that are exchanged in a café. It is a commodity with a global reach that has intimate effects. Coffee offers the opportunity to share information, passion, and cause with every cup brewed.

As coffee business owners, we should start to ask more about the women who grow our coffee and, when we can, make buying decisions that support them and their access to ownership and personal income. Then at the retail level, during a conversation over a bar in a café, we can let a customer know that when she buys this cup, she is empowering a woman who grew the coffee.

These small conversations, together with our attention, can draw taut that global ribbon of our commodity until it is strong enough to pull us all forward.

—Erin Williamson is the owner and founder of Pier Coffee in Seattle.

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