“Making Coffee Work for Women” – Grounds for Empowerment Workshop: Guatemala City 2019

Posted on October 18th, 2019

We recognize that all coffee producers deserve a better, more sustainable income, but it’s impossible to ignore the widespread disparity of wealth, labor, respect, and agency that cuts along gender lines in the coffee value stream. While women comprise about 70% of the world’s coffee labor, they represent less than 25% of landowners worldwide, which means they have significantly fewer opportunities to earn profits and invest in their own futures within the coffee industry.

Among the growing number of efforts designed to bring more equity to woman coffee producers is Grounds for Empowerment, an initiative out of Emory University’s Social Enterprise @ Goizueta Business School—the same program from which the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide is compiled and transmitted. GFE is a women-focused coffee think-tank that links a cohort of caficultoras together with coffee-industry mentors and students studying relevant fields such as economics, accounting, human health, and mathematics. Its mission is to open access for the producers to tools and expert guidance in order to, well, empower them to build their own marketing profiles, analyze their existing financial health and sustainability, uncover their potential and discuss areas where they can increase their market advantage, and set tangible goals for the future.

Just last week (October 11–15), the GFE leadership team spent a busy three-and-a-half days in the facilities of Anacafé, the national coffee institution of Guatemala, for a workshop with 13 producers from all over the country—from Suchitepéquez to Chimaltenango to Santa Rosa to Baja Verapaz. The women’s experience and background in coffee was diverse, representing multigenerational coffee families, indigenous growers’ associations, entrepreneurial young farmers, smallholders with 1 hectare or less, all the way to producers who count their annual yields in FCLs.

In teams of two, the producers collaborated with specialty-coffee industry mentors—including Cafe Imports’ editorial manager and education director Ever Meister—to write their own stories, select their own brand images, cup their own coffees, and pore over their own budgets in order to walk away with a more complete idea of the value they have and the areas where they are not currently optimizing that value. With this portfolio and their development goals in place, the women have the opportunity to apply for seed capital through the Goizueta Social Enterprise initiative, or to go out into the coffee sphere in search of better prices and, perhaps, better buying partners.

Several aspects of the workshop stood out for us, including the very real difficulty that the producers and mentors had in correctly making all of the necessary conversions to arrive at the women’s farmgate for their last season’s harvest. Many first needed to calculate the exchange from the amount of cherry they delivered to its finished “oro” or exportable green stage; then to calculate quetzals per quintal of green; then from quetzals to dollars. Finally matching that figure against the estimated cost of production… and faces around the room grew somewhat solemn. Several of the farmers realized for the first time that they were losing money every year; others discovered through the comparison of cup quality to price that they were being seriously undervalued by their current buyers.

While the information came as a shock, it was also a bold call to action: What could each one of these producers do, change, or strive for in the next year to three years in order to have a sustainable coffee business? Heads nodded around the room as each participant described her goals and dreams, and they shared advice with one another as the dialogue continued.

Another conversation that was impossible to ignore centered around visual marketing and imagery. When asked to select a handful of good, “marketable” photos to accompany their written stories and farm descriptions, several of the women spoke up. They were concerned about how flippant coffee buyers can be with their images, taking and posting pictures without permission, sharing photos of the women’s houses and children, and using their faces and stories in order to sell the coffee but not transferring that added value back to the farm level. In being able to develop their own profiles and select their own artwork and representation, would they be able to protect themselves and capture more of the value, they wondered.

While that was the point of the exercise, the truth remains to be seen: Can coffee buyers be more respectful and conscientious when sharing these types of materials along with the coffee? What will we collectively use to tell the “story” of a farm or a lot if we can’t show it to our customers? It’s worthwhile to listen to these women’s voices and to consider the question as we move forward in the industry—it’s time for many things to change for equity’s sake, and perhaps this is one of the first on the block.

Efforts like this are small but mighty, and we believe they have a ripple effect: The more we can engage with each other to ask the hard questions and fight against the severe inequity that exists for all coffee farmers, certainly, but also for the women who have been working for so long in coffee with fewer rewards. To quote the Grounds for Empowerment motto: It’s time to make coffee work for women.

To get involved with Grounds for Empowerment, visit www.groundsforempowerment.org.