Women Take Charge in Agricultural Co-op Café Femenino

Cafe Feminino | Photo by Bill Barrett

Women are looking for new opportunities in agriculture – in production, leadership and business, among them. When this search extends beyond Canada’s borders, the commodities may change. But the principles are the same, including equality, participation and recognition.

Take Peru, for example, where coffee is a very popular commodity. Coffee production there everywhere else is in its own mad world right now, and farmers and consumers are paying the price.

Since the demise of the International Coffee Agreement some 25 years ago, which set limits on exports and kept market prices stable, coffee trading has been on a roller coaster ride.

Cafe Feminino | Photo by Bill Barrett

Cafe Femenino | Photo by Bill Barrett

It’s come to a head lately. At a global coffee forum in Italy this fall, huge world shortages were being predicted. That’s a result of drought, plant disease such as coffee rust and discouraged Brazilian farmers, who with 2.7 billion kilograms of production annually, produce more coffee than anyone. But they’re stung by Brazil’s deflated currency, and — like their colleagues everywhere — by the handful of global coffee conglomerates who control half of the world’s supply and keep prices to farmers down.

It’s a pitiful situation. Yet even against this short-supply, high-demand backdrop, last week in Canada, one of the world’s major fast-food chains was offering its customers free coffee. Another popular coffee chain raised its prices in the summer. At whose expense?

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The vast majority of coffee producers are very small family farmers who are poorly equipped to handle this global phenomenon. Rising consumption mainly in emerging markets means demand is predicted to escalate more than 30 per cent over the next 15 years. Farmers could be making a decent living. Instead they’re struggling.

The fair trade movement helps address the situation. Fair trade coffee producers are guaranteed consistent, reasonable prices that cover the cost of production and then some, in exchange for certain production standards, mainly environmental and labour related. Sound a bit like the virtues of supply management? It does to me.

Earlier this fall, the University of Guelph’s Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development Prof. Sharada Srinivasan, hosted a visit by a fair-trade northern Peruvian group that has further carved out a unique coffee production niche.

It’s called Café Femenino, which roughly translates to “women’s coffee.”

Patrons of this coffee co-op, which include Planet Bean in Guelph, pay a premium for the fair trade aspect of its operation. But then they go beyond, and pay an additional few cents a pound to support the women who produce it.

Isabel Uriate Latorre started the Peruvian group with her husband Victor in 2004. They were trying to find a way to break the male-dominated coffee production culture that resulted in whole families producing coffee, but the men in the family selling it and then often frittering away the profits. A poverty cycle ensued that left families in tatters.

Isabel and Victor figured the way to promote change was to empower women and get them more involved, by offering a financial incentive for fair trade, certified organic coffee that could specifically be identified as having been produced with them in a lead role, and the proceeds going directly to them to support their families.

“I understand that the development of rural communities is the result of joint work between men and women,” says Isabel. “However the fact that women in these communities do not have the same opportunities cannot be ignored. Women in rural communities often suffer from more severe poverty as they sometimes do not have opportunities to go to school or work a stable job, and are often abused, neglected and suffer greatly when they have nothing to feed their children.

“In these conditions, it’s very difficult for women to take an active part in the development of their communities. So I have made it my commitment to promote work for rural women that will help raise self-esteem and confidence and develop skills needed to actively participate in community development, be recognized for their work, and improve the welfare of their families.”

The concept caught fire. The Peruvian initiative now has 1,655 members in 60 communities, in six coffee-producing regions. Café Femenino has grown into a foundation that supports such ventures in other coffee-producing countries, too. It’s all supported by coffee roasters in developed countries who believe in not only fair trade, but in women’s role in social change.

Bill Barrett re Cafe Feminino

Bill Barrett, founder of Planet Bean.

In Guelph, Bill Barrett, founder of Planet Bean, sells Café Femenino coffee for $18.69 a pound. He’s travelled to Peru to see the women’s coops in action. Over time, he’s watched families grow and develop stable homes as a result of making a reliable and reasonable income through Café Femenino.

To Barrett and some of his customers, it’s worthwhile paying more for social justice. Café Femenino coffee comprises about 10 per cent of Planet Bean’s sales.

And to Guelph researcher Srinivasan, seeing social justice and women’s rights emerge in the remote coffee fields of Peru is heartening.

“Café Femenino presents an exciting opportunity to learn about gender and generational issues in bringing about a socially just, economically and ecologically viable food system,” she says.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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