Your morning cup of joe can make a difference in the world. That may be a lot to take in so early in the a.m., but Snake River Roasting Company has done the heavy lifting for you: In 2014, the Jackson Hole, WY-based roaster partnered with Café Femenino, a project that empowers female farmers by helping them obtain title to, and directly receive proceeds from, the land they farm.
Coffee is big business—generating around $20 billion in global exports—and yet its agricultural scale is small: 80% of the world’s coffee is grown on family farms under 12 acres. Within this nuclear structure, women fully participate in the manual labor, while men often make the business decisions and handle the finances.
In 2004, Organic Products Trading Company set out to change this dynamic in northern Peru by empowering women as farmers. Naming the program Café Femenino in celebration of its gender focus, OPTCO adopted a clear strategy, starting with incentives for coffee farmers to help women gain title to land and segregating a portion of the farm to a woman within the family. Crops from that parcel are funneled separately into the co-op and the importer pays a higher price for the women’s coffee. Business decisions are made by the women and the revenue flows directly back to them.
The Peru pilot proved so successful, Café Femenino has since shared the model with women in Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sumatra and Brazil.
More than an economic restructuring, Café Femenino has empowered a social sea change in every community in which it operates. “With Café Femenino, the traditional family financial system has been disrupted in order to get money into the women’s hands,” says Connie Kolosvary, program director of Café Femenino for OPTCO. We know that when a woman has money, she will invest in her children first in the form of household sanitation improvements, increased nutrition and sending her daughters as well as her sons to school.”
Mirroring the decline in malnutrition, “the acceptance of domestic violence has decreased dramatically through women having their own income and education,” Kolosvary says. “They now hold power in the relationship and the men treat them better.”
Quality in Equality
In an industry dominated by men—87 percent of coffee roasters in the US are men— importer Kathi Zollman stands out as a success story: She started a specialty coffee business in 1994, and shifted to the import segment in 2007; she currently works as Assistant Director Specialty Green Coffee for Coffee Holding Company. So when Zollman introduced a likeminded entrepreneur Ruth Ann Petroff, owner of Snake River Roasting Company, to Café Femenino, the resonance felt fated. “Strong women all along the supply chain,” Petroff says.
Petroff wants to extend this profound connection for Café Femenino to her customers. “The powerful impact it has had on women, families and communities is indisputable,” she says. “We hope the success stories coming back from these communities helps connect our customers to their coffee.”
By sourcing Café Femenino beans, Petroff has closed the loop on her empowered business model. Since starting Snake River Roasting Co. 14 years ago, she has achieved success by recruiting talented women: six of her eight employees are female. “It sometimes turns heads when we go to trade shows and coffee events,” says roaster Jennifer Vickland.
And yet, Petroff would never let gender solidarity eclipse quality. Guided by OPTCO, Café Femenino partners must meet rigorous quality and sustainability standards. To join the co-op, farms must be certified organic and fair trade. “From strictly a quality point of view, Café Femenino partners produce a quality coffee product, and we see that the coffees are improving upon their quality each harvest,” Zollman says.
Beyond sustainable agriculture, Café Femenino instills sustainable philanthropy by requiring the roasters to make a per-pound donation to the Café Femenino Foundation, which funds project grants that the women coffee farmers themselves prioritize, design, request and administer. This is a very unique way of providing funding for projects that go back to communities that roasters can support and know that the women themselves have requested.
Last year, Snake River Roasting Co. funded a project in Guatemala through the foundation; the grant built a shop adjacent to a library previously supported by Café Femenino Foundation, which will allow women to sell crafts to cover the library’s operating expenses. Petroff wanted to work in Guatemala as a sign of her support for the female farmers who are effecting significant change in the country. “In Guatemala, five years ago, zero leadership positions were filled by women in coffee cooperatives,” she says. “Last year, 40 percent of co-op leadership is female across the entire country. A small percentage of those are Café Femenino, but the sea change the program has made is breathtaking.”
Such success stories echo across the globe in the communities empowered by Café Femenino as women cultivate new futures for themselves. Their resiliency and resourcefulness inspires everyone involved with Café Femenino, says Kolosvary. “What moves us is the humility we feel when we walk on a farm and witness what women are capable of with very few resources but a lot of hope.”