What does an organic Fairtrade specialty coffee and social impact investing have to do with empowering some of the poorest women in the world?
In rural Minas Gerais, Brazil’s biggest coffee-growing state, women used to support their husbands on small family farms but had little involvement or say in the business or farming decisions. This changed forever in 2006, when Oikocredit investee partner, Coopfam (Cooperativa dos Agricultores Familiares de Poço Fundo e Região) - a smallholder coffee co-operative, started to focus on empowering women to play an equal role in producing the Arabica coffee that had been a part of their lives for decades.
Café Feminino: Organic arabica coffee produced by Oikocredit investee partner, Coopfam and their female member-farmers. Photograph, Opmeer Reports.
Today, the women in the Brazilian coffee-growing community of Poço Fundo (Minas Gerais) play a central role in Coopfam’s future, and support their families and livelihoods by producing and selling their own special, female brand of organic Fairtrade coffee – Café Feminino.
Dayany de Assis dos Santos Ferreira, for example, has two young children and runs their small coffee farm with her husband. Recently, they also bought a plot of land for Dayany to grow manage her own Café Feminino crop.
Dayany explains: “In the past, my work was just to produce coffee. There was no difference between the coffee I produced and the rest of the farm. Now I have a separate plot that only I look after. It’s very important to me and all of the women in the group have supported me in my activities. We put a lot of love and care into the Café Feminino crop and it is this care and attention which results in the premium quality of this coffee. It’s tough work, but I feel we can do the job and I feel rewarded for the things that I do.”
Dayany de Assis dos Santos Ferreira is a farmer-member of Coopfam and the women's group (MOBI) which produces a bespoke female brand of organic arabica coffee, called Café Feminino. Photograph: Opmeer Reports.
“These are things I have always done but now I am getting credit for them”
The Mulheres Organizadas Buscando Independência (Organised Women Seeking Independence) or MOBI women’s group is part of the Coopfam coffee co-operative and sells Café Feminino at a 10% higher price than their standard Fairtrade organic coffee. The women reinvest this premium in building the skills of their MOBI members and empowering more women to produce coffee independently so that they can improve their livelihoods.
“The women participating in MOBI want to do more than take care of children and the house – they want to have their own place in Coopfam’s coffee production and they want their voices to be heard,” explains Vânia Lucia Pereira da Silva, MOBI member and vice-president of Coopfam, whose family own 12 hectares of plantations.
“Women are an important part of the production, so they must also be part of the decision-making.”
Vânia Lucia Pereira da Silva: Vice President of Oikocredit partner, Coopfam; member of Mobi and coffee producer of Café Feminino. Photography, Opmeer Reports
As one of MOBI’s leaders from the outset, Vânia has helped her fellow MOBI members to learn about every aspect of producing organic coffee in the hills of Poço Fundo - from managing pests to harvesting cherries and drying the beans. Importantly, she also took part in the leadership training provided by Coopfam, and overcame traditional gender barriers to become one of two female members of Coopfam’s senior management team.
Aside from practical agricultural training and knowledge-sharing, these resourceful women also supplement their income by growing roses and learning to make handicrafts using the remains of the coffee plants after harvesting. They sell their creations in the local community in between coffee harvests.
By participating more fully in Coopfam and developing their own enterprise, these women are building confidence and respect in the community, are becoming more financially independent and are strengthening their families’ income. Importantly, Vania believes that empowering women to participate more fully in local coffee growing activities is vital to halting the ‘rural exodus’ of women and young people to towns and cities, thereby helping to ensure the future sustainability of this thriving coffee-growing community.
For the women of MOBI, the health benefits of organic farming were also among the key reasons why they wanted to play a greater role in Coopfam’s coffee business. “I started to produce organic because I was thinking about the health of my family,” says Vânia. “At first, I didn’t know how to grow organic coffee, but Coopfam helps its producers gain the necessary skills.”
Fellow MOBI member Maria Aparicida Paive Borges, who cultivates 12,000 coffee trees on her family’s farm, agrees: “We focus on organic coffee because it preserves nature and our health. And it feels good and right to work without agri-chemicals. Furthermore, by being a member of MOBI, I’m taking part in every part of the farm – in the crops, in the selling and in the co-operative.”
Maria Aparicida Paive Borges, drying the coffee. Photograph Opmeer Reports.
Oikocredit invest in Coopfam because of the joint focus of both co-operatives on people and planet. Coopfam shares not only Oikocredit’s ambition to improve the lives of smallholder farmers, but also its focus on Fairtrade as a crucial means of livelihood. Coopfam was the first co-operative in Brazil to produce organic and Fairtrade coffee in the late 1990s, and uses Oikocredit’s loan to support its 450 member-farmers by helping them gain access to local, national and international markets.
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