Kimberly Easson has been present at the creation of lots of noteworthy efforts to make the coffee trade more equitable. She was part of the original team that brought Fair Trade Certification to the U.S. coffee market in 1999 to create new market opportunities for smallolder farmers. In 2003, she co-founded the International Women’s Coffee Alliance which works to empower women in coffee. And later this week in Colombia she will launch the Coffee Quality Institute’s Partnership for Gender Equity , whose ambition is nothing less than securing a future in which coffee communities thrive.
Today I interview Kimberly about her work on gender issues in coffee generally and the CQI initiative in particular.
How did you get your start in coffee?
My first job in coffee was in Costa Rica working at a coffee roaster called Café Britt. I had gone to Costa Rica on a Rotary Club scholarship after earning a Master’s degree in international business. I wanted something more challenging than the classes I was taking at the University of Costa Rica, so I looked for an internship or a part-time job. The opportunity at cafe Britt appeared, and the rest is history!
Way back in the mid-1990s, before Direct Trade even coalesced as coherent trading model and relatively few people were going to source, you started JavaVentures to connect the marketplace with origin. Can you tell me how that started and where JavaVentures stands today?
When I started the company in 1996, there was very little travel taking place to coffee farming communities and JavaVentures was created to fill an important niche in the industry—getting people to the hinterlands of coffee-producing countries to meet smallholder farmers, usually for the first time. In 2003, I had the chance to take Erna Knutsen to Soppexcca with a group of women. Even with her illustrious coffee career, she had never been to meet smallholder farmers in their homes and communities. I was proud that she mentioned this trip in her SCAA award acceptance speech last year.
I am happy how coffee tourism has taken off as the industry has evolved—more and more people are visiting smallholder producers, so in a way the mission of JavaVentures is being fulfilled in the broader community. That’s great. The consulting work under JavaVentures is currently just me, and I don’t have time for it with my CQI work. So in a sense we’re on a hiatus, but we continue to receive inquiries and refer people to other companies who are traveling to origin.
Have you seen any change over the years in the kinds of things people in the coffee industry are looking for from experts like you or the level of demand for those services?
More companies are interested in supply chain issues, and consumers have become more and more interested in the origin of their coffee and the conditions under which it was produced. I remember visiting Starbucks HQ around 1997 and suggesting that they promote more direct links to the people at origin – their response was that consumers were not interested. Incredible how things have changed in this regard.
Today, buyers really want to have as close a connection as possible to the farmers, and to promote their buying practices to their customers. Having someone like me who knows many producer communities well and can play an independent role to gather information and make personal connections on their behalf had been a growing part of JavaVentures services. Essentially I was consolidating direct trade services that importers were not providing but roasters were willing to pay for even if they were not always able to send a company representative.
Over a decade ago, you helped to start the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. Can you explain how it came to be?
IWCA was really born out of that women’s trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica I organized in 2003 with Karen Cebreros. It was such a moving experience for the women from Nicaragua and North America to bond the way they did, in spite of language and cultural barriers. We realized the great power of these connections among women and believed that we needed an organization that could help expand on this bond with the purpose to empower women throughout the global coffee industry. It’s exciting to see how IWCA has evolved—so many chapters and the ongoing work to raise awareness of the issues.
Later this week, with your inaugural workshop in Cauca, Colombia, you are launching the CQI Partnership for Gender Equity initiative. Can you explain the program’s goals and how it hopes to achieve them?
The first phase of CQI’s Partnership for Gender Equity is a discovery phase. We are spearheading a research initiative to better understand the effects of gender inequality on coffee production and coffee quality. The goals of this phase of the project are to influence CQI’s own strategic approach to development programming, and inform industry practice regarding gender equity within coffee supply chains. Through this initiative, CQI will conduct a series of participatory workshops in four countries and an extensive literature review to create an academically based, industry-friendly report that offers recommendations for further research, investments, partnerships, and pilot projects.
The rationale for the program builds on CQI’s Women in Coffee Leadership Program, started in 2003 under Margaret Swallow’s tenure at CQI with the support of USAID. Since then, we have dramatically increased our work in producing communities, but we recognize that we need to integrate gender more strategically in our own development work throughout the supply chain, and that there are opportunities to do so as well in other industry sustainability initiatives.
We have learned that there is a desire within the industry to better understand the link between gender and coffee production and a desire to better inform investments in programs that could have a favorable impact on coffee producing communities. Our plan is to develop a shared approach informed by private sector businesses and development agencies working in gender in other crops, and work already being done in coffee.
In what ways do you see the CQI Partnership Gender Equity as an extension of the mission of the IWCA, and in what ways is it new?
IWCA has a strong focus on developing women leaders, connecting them in a global network, and beginning to build market linkages for them, especially through the work it is doing in Africa in partnership with the International Trade Center. All of this work is raising critical awareness about the position of women in the industry and the value they provide. IWCA has become home for many of the women who participated in CQI’s Women in Coffee Leadership Program, and they have helped to evolve the alliance into the broad global network it is today.
We anticipate that the outcomes of this first phase of CQI research will point to additional research, potential projects, investments and partnerships that will include guidance and support for IWCA chapters as well as a number of other great organizations doing work on the ground (Coffee Kids, Grounds for Health, Food4Farmers, etc.) to improve gender equity and healthy coffee communities. The intention is to generate lots of synergies across organizations doing good work on the one hand, and companies and organizations that can fund this work on the other.
How can people get involved in the process?
Anyone can participate in a gender workshop. We are also looking for thought-leader partners who provide input and experience to assure we’re addressing the right issues for the industry, and donors who can support this work financially. There are several levels of partnership support, and we encourage everyone to join a workshop, stay tuned on updates, joining the conversations online, and later at Symposium and SCAA Expo to catalyze industry action and build out the next phase of this work together.
What is your vision of gender equity in coffee 10 years from now?
Currently we have an industry where a large number of women are disengaged, mainly due to gender inequity in the supply chain. In most coffee-producing communities much of the work is done by women, yet the men are the ones who have access to the land and resources. Training investments are often poorly targeted to the men, when the women are the ones who do so much of the work. As an industry we are not capturing the full benefit of the human potential in these communities, and that’s a shame.
For me it’s all a partnership to encourage thriving coffee communities and a healthy coffee business far into the future. Gender equity is a key link that brings so many sustainability issues and business issues—climate change, food security, health and education, disease mitigation, coffee quality and productivity. So many of these issues are positively impacted when we work together as equals and women have a true voice and valued position throughout the industry. We have massive global challenges to confront that are putting the coffee supply chain at great risk. We need 100% of the population in coffee-growing communities to be healthy and engaged, using their full capabilities and working together to build a sustainable future for quality coffee and quality lives.
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For more information on the CQI Partnership for Gender Equity, click here.