How a Fairtrade speciality coffee and social impact investment are 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.
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 a small coffee farm with her husband. Recently she bought a plot of land for Dayany to grow and manage her own Café Feminino crop.
Dayany said: "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."
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 per cent 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 they can improve their livelihoods.
Vânia Lucia Pereira da Silva is a MOBI member and is ice-president of Coopfam and her family own 12 hectares of plantations. She said: 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.
"Women are an important part of the production, so they must also be part of the decision-making."
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. 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 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," said 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. She said: "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."
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.