January 16, 2020
5 Minute Read
Sunghee TarkIn June 2016, I met Ericka Mora. It was during a follow-up trip that my-now-co-founder Abhi and a couple of our friends led in Costa Rica to learn more about the coffee industry following our initial trips in 2014. It was a sunny afternoon in June 2016, when Ericka came out of a turquoise house with a wide grin on her face. She was followed by her three timid and curious daughters. Her husband, Ruben also quickly came out to reach out for our hands. They welcomed us with open arms and shared their stories as they heard that we were researching into the stories of smallholder producers in the context of the broader coffee industry.
Co-Founder at Bean Voyage
The afternoon that we spent with Ericka and Ruben’s family was filled with emotional encounters. Ericka’s passion for learning has led her to receive a university degree in education. Nonetheless, she was diagnosed with a bone tumor soon after her marriage. She was also pregnant with her second daughter at that time and her entire family was shaken. While she was able to get treated thankfully, it also meant that she had to amputate her right leg after a series of surgeries.
Ericka’s medical conditions had put the family at financial risk of almost giving up their coffee farm. Despite their expressed desire to rebuild their coffee business, Ericka expressed that as a smallholder producer, the family has historically experienced challenges accessing the training and the market information. Without the network and information that other lager producers in her community were able to enjoy, her family found it more challenging to thrive through coffee, let alone sustain.
For the weeks and months to follow after meeting Ericka, we had many more encounters with smallholder producers that expressed particular challenges that they faced in accessing the information and market. We met Ana Lorena, Miriam, Grace, Flor, Aracelly and many other female owners of the coffee farms that shared with us the unique challenges they faced as a smallholder female coffee producers.
These stories of the intersectionality of class and gender spoke to us. While smallholder producers faced challenges in accessing information and the market, it was a lot harder for smallholder female producers (often widowed, divorced, or single to lead the farms on their own) as they experienced even more difficulties accessing these opportunities.
Our research with cooperatives and governmental organizations has also illustrated that women, despite being closely tied to plant care and quality control on farms (from picking, sorting, processing to drying), historically haven’t formed more than 20% of the participation in training sessions offered by these organizations. It was surprising as some studies have suggested that women can make up to 70% of the labor force on farms. Due to the structural and cultural reasons - such as double/triple-burden for womxn as they take care of children, attend domestic work while also leading their farms, and the perception that the public appearance is for the male member(s) of the family- womxn were found further away from the opportunities and often invisible at the negotiating tables.
After months of conversations with the community members, Bean Voyage started as a project to narrow this gap in knowledge across the gender spectrum and to challenge consumers’ perception of the gender of the producers by telling the stories of the female producers that we met and learned from: to truly tell the stories that there are many more womxn involved in coffee than what we may be aware of from reading off the labels on our favorite coffee bag and to support these womxn in the process as they produce and market their coffees with passion.
Bean Voyage is a Costa Rica based feminist social enterprise that challenges the narrative in the coffee industry around gender. Our mission is to eradicate gender-based discrimination across coffee farming communities and we do so by providing smallholder womxn coffee producers with training and market access so that they are able to lead their families and communities towards a sustainable future. We collaborate with them in the way that they envision their communities to thrive through what we call the Care Trade. With this belief, we hope to use the trade as an opportunity to care about the producers and the planet that produced our favorite morning beverage.
So far, we have worked with over 70+ smallholding families and womxn producers to provide them with 120+ hours of training each. The training aims to equip the producers with tools and knowledge to run successful and sustainable farming businesses. As a result, it encompasses a range of training from financial planning workshops and gender sensitivity and empowerment at the household and community level to sustainable farming practices, and workshops on mitigation and adaptation to climate change. We also provide them with workshops on basic cupping and roasting so that they are able to enhance their understanding of the relationship between good farming practices and the resulting cup quality. Over the past few years, our impact hasn’t only been seen in the increased yield and quality of the producers who have followed the advice of our training team, but also in the stronger sense of community and the creation of support groups among the womxn.
Prior to forming these safe spaces for smallholder womxn coffee producers, they had expressed the sense of isolation - as they felt that they were alone in the fight. Globally, women are often reported to be ‘lonelier’ and lacking the social support in rural communities - leading them to be less likely to report if there is any kind of gender-based discrimination or even domestic violence compared to womxn in urban settings1. Nonetheless, what we see now after working with some of the communities over the past few years is a stronger sense of communities and the formation of support groups. They actively engage with one another beyond our training sessions and support each other in the process.
There are many studies that have already been quoted on how reducing the gender gap in farming communities would lead to increased yield and quality on farms. Some studies even quote that gender equality on coffee farms will lead to an extra 30 billion cups of coffee a year.
At Bean Voyage, we believe that by working with smallholding womxn and their families, we are not only unlocking these economic potentials, but are also building resilience in the farming communities: the resilience to be strong against the volatile coffee prices, climate change, and social and structural challenges so that they are able to thrive with and through coffee.
Only when the smallholder coffee farming families are strong in its roots, can we imagine the sustainability of the industry. We invest in the womxn and their families while dreaming for the thriving farming families across the globe. We invite you to join us in the movement as well.
1 UN Women. 2012. Commission on the status of women: facts and figures. Accessed here: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/commission-on-the-status-of-women-2012/facts-and-figures***
Sunghee Tark is the co-founder of Bean Voyage and a freelance coffee writer. Her interest in the specialty coffee industry has initially stemmed from her passion to understand the intersectionality of income and gender inequality and she looked at coffee as one of the tools to address the issue. She explored this interest through academic research at London School of Economics where she recently finished her master’s degree. Through her work with Bean Voyage, a feminist non-profit social enterprise that she co-founded with Abhinav Khanal, she collaborates with smallholder womxn coffee producers and youths in coffee communities to co-create a sustainable supply chain that works for all. Through her writing, she has written to raise awareness about the cost of coffee production, projects that empower coffee producers and womxn in coffee production whose work often goes unnoticed. Sunghee hopes to continue to promote greater equity for all members of the coffee communities through her involvement in the industry.