Mission to Colombia - Mujeres Cafeteras
I knew that Peet’s had started a women’s center in Colombia. When coffee from Mujeres Cafeteras would come across the cupping table, I was aware of its association with the project, but I thought mostly about how excellent it tasted. Big syrupy body, marvelously complex, and incredibly sweet. I’d seen pictures of Lucia Alvarez, the program’s ambassador, standing on her farm, beautiful and proud amidst her lush trees. I'd read impact reports and articles about the success of the program, but somehow it still felt abstract and far away. This is one of coffee’s biggest problems: the invisible gap in the supply chain between your cup of coffee and the people growing the trees. I finally was able to bridge that gap when I had the opportunity to travel with Peet’s to Huila, Colombia to visit the women who grow this fantastic coffee.
A view of Fanny's farm in Huila, Colombia
My first experience meeting these coffee farmers was at a gathering of the first graduating class of the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship, where I heard personally from each of them how the program had impacted their lives. Women represent 31% of coffee farmers in Colombia, but many of them must also care for children and maintain households. Coffee culture in Colombia is very machismo, so being a woman in the industry is often met with cultural resistance in addition to additional workloads. Something spoken of often was the community of support they found in the group. Households in Huila are often high up in the mountains, far from town and far from neighbors, isolated from other women farmers. Having this program for women farmers connected them all, and they were able to form friendships and support networks amongst each other. The graduates also talked about the shift in their self esteem that came from being empowered with resources, knowledge, and community. Fanny told us she used to be very shy but now feels less afraid of expressing herself. Once a quiet participant, she’s now a leader of other women.
A gathering of Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship graduates
Interestingly, improving the quality and volume of coffee came from altering the perspective away from growing just coffee. The program gave strategies for income diversification and for turning their coffee farms into businesses, making them more profitable. They couldn’t wait to tell us about the chickens Peet’s had donated as part of a food safety program. The twenty-five chickens from three years ago were now 120, providing eggs, meat, and income.
Mother and daughter mujeres cafeteras showcasing their egg business
The timing of our visit was centered around the evolution of the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship into a microloan program called Mujeres to Market. Using their business training, the women could now form business plans and apply for small loans to make farm improvements or invest in other business ventures. Already, their creativity was flowing. Nelcy had been able to acquire a small roasting machine and was using it to roast her own coffee and sell it both locally and internationally. She uses eggs from the food program chickens to make a delicious sweet cake that she sells alongside her coffee, brewed by her son who is training to be a barista.
Lucia hopes to build a community market space where everyone can bring their bounties to sell—prospering together as a collective. We most recently heard from her while she was attending a workshop for turning coffee and its byproducts into cosmetics. These are just a handful of their ideas, and clearly these women are just getting started.
Lucia speaking at a recent meeting
Lucia said it best, “There’s no need for words, just look at us. We’re courageous, doing what no one thought we could do.” She made clear that the program was challenging, but that now they could grow their businesses, grow personally, and most of all, dream bigger.
It was incredibly inspiring to hear personally about the successes of these women and to feel their hope for the future of coffee and their communities. Their energy was contagious and effervescent, and I came away feeling like anything was possible. Now when I get to cup Mujeres Cafeteras, I think of all the women coffee farmers, the wonderful staff at the cooperative, and how everyone was so welcoming, friendly, and supportive of one another. I do my best to be objective, but I can’t help that now the coffee tastes even sweeter.
-Author and photographer Alysse Wishart is Peet's Cupping Lab Coordinator, Coffee Department