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Aug. 7, 2020

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Food & Drink: How locals fostered fair-trade coffee

Vancouver company empowers female growers through its Cafe Femenino cooperative program

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Cafe Femenino coffee at Kafiex Roasters Coffee Lab in downtown Vancouver.
Cafe Femenino coffee at Kafiex Roasters Coffee Lab in downtown Vancouver. Rachel Pinsky Photo Gallery

Coffee aficionados pay close attention to a coffee’s country of origin, but little thought is given to the people who grow and pick coffee beans. Getting beans to market is labor intensive work done by hand in remote and often impoverished coffee-growing regions throughout the world.

Traditionally, farmers sold beans to companies in the United States through intermediaries that didn’t offer a living wage to the people who were growing, picking and processing the coffee. Interested in changing that dynamic, Garth and Gay Smith started an organic, free-trade coffee company (Organic Products Trading Company) from their home in Vancouver in the 1990s.

Gay Smith traveled to remote coffee-growing regions, obtained organic beans, developed relationships with small-scale coffee growers and paid them directly. As Cafe Femenino program director Connie Kolosvary explained, “He was way ahead of his time paying farmers a fair price before there was such a thing here in the U.S.”

The Smiths noticed that the women were doing the work but when it came to conducting business, they didn’t have a role. Gay Smith felt they could market coffee grown exclusively by women.

In 2004, the first Cafe Femenino project began when 464 female farmers in Peru formed an all-women coffee-growing cooperative. They grew, harvested and processed their own beans and brought them to market. As a result, they had money in their pockets and control over their own household spending — no longer subservient to men, but equal.

Cafe Femenino has very specific requirements of its female growers. They must have legal rights to the land on which they farm, leadership positions within the cooperatives, financial and business decision-making power, direct payment for their coffee and a women’s association.

In exchange for creating all-women coffee cooperatives, farmers are paid a premium price for their beans. The men of the community must agree to this arrangement.

Changing attitudes toward women and getting men on board was a process, but the increase in payment for the beans was a successful incentive. Kolosvary explains, “I want to be clear, the men have agreed to this (before the implementation of a Cafe Femenino program) because it’s not going to work if the husbands aren’t supporting the idea.”

Women spend their money on nutritious food, things to keep the house clean, clothing, and education for their children. During women’s association meetings, they identified community needs such as clean water, nutritious food and education.

The company wanted to find a way to fund those needs, so the Cafe Femenino Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was founded. Roasters who buy green (unroasted) beans from Cafe Femenino donate five cents per bag to the foundation. This money can be used to fund overseas projects for the female coffee growers. Or 50 percent can go to women’s organizations in the United States, such as domestic violence shelters.

Where to try Cafe Femenino coffee

Where: Kafiex Roasters Coffee Lab

Address: 720 Esther St., Vancouver.

Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

On the web: Kafiex.com

Cafe Femenino CafeFemenino.com

Cafe Femenino Foundation: CoffeeCan.org

Marilyn Dryke, president of the nonprofit’s board, works closely with Kolosvary and the foundation’s volunteer staff to fulfill its mission to enhance the lives of women and families in coffee-producing communities throughout the world.

The foundation’s website lists funding opportunities. Donations can be made through the website to specific projects or to generally fund the organization. The grants are small amounts of money (less than $4,000).

Kolosvary said “With a little bit of money, we can do a lot on the ground.”

Past foundation projects include community gardens, animal breeding programs, health programs, sanitation programs, water projects and nutrition training.

The first Cafe Femenino group in Peru has grown to 800 women in six associations. Child malnutrition has decreased by 12 percent, domestic violence and sexual assault have decreased by half, and families are sending their children (including daughters) to school.

“It’s a happier, healthier place,” Kolosvary said.

Cafe Femenino has spread from South America and Central America to Sumatra and Rwanda — areas that in the past wouldn’t have been safe places to form women’s cooperatives. But the tsunami in Sumatra and the war in Rwanda brought outside influences and change. Survivors of the war in Rwanda went through extensive reconciliation. As a result, Hutu and Tutsi women were able to form a Cafe Femenino cooperative. One Rwandan cooperative member explained, “We could be enemies, but we decided poverty is our enemy and we need to work together.”

The Smiths sold their company years ago. But the seven-person “superstaff” of Organic Products Trading Company and Cafe Femenino still operate out of an office space in Vancouver, using the same socially responsible entrepreneurial model created over a decade ago by their avant-garde founders.

Cafe Femenino coffee is available at Kafiex Roasters Coffee Lab, across from Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver. The bags of beans are marked with a red Cafe Femenino sticker. Kafiex’s Christmas Blend is also made from Cafe Femenino beans.

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