Guest Blog: Toward a more Balanced Coffee

19 April 2016   |   Mark Overly, President of Kaladi Coffee Roasters
Woman holding Fairtrade certified coffee beans grown in Indonesia
Photo Credit: Justin Avern

Mark Overly of Kaladi Coffee Roasters in Denver, Colorado, has been working in coffee for over 28 years. In his travels, he has witnessed the effects that gender imbalances can have on communities; but also the transformative nature of extending opportunities to all. Ensuring that women and men have access to the same opportunities is key to greater gender equality.

Many years ago, on one of my trips to coffee producing countries – origin as we like to say in the trade – I couldn’t help but notice a division of labor as we watched coffee being harvested in the fields. It was early in my coffee buying career, and I had been traveling to origin trying to understand the simple question of what makes coffee taste good. Or, more broadly, what is it that makes the coffees I like taste the way that they do? I had been observing the different conditions where coffee is grown and processed, making connections that I hoped would allow me to more successfully source coffees that interest me.

I had begun to formulate a theory based on my observations, that coffee coming from more traditional growing areas were more flavorful than those coming from large, mono-crop farms, but that these coffees were often marred by poor processing and lack of infrastructure; that great coffee was the result of forest-like growing conditions paired with careful processing conditions. I was still formulating my ideas, traveling to different origins, comparing the different ways that coffee is grown and processed around the world.

Anyway, while I was observing the coffee harvesting on this particular occasion, I remarked to our guide that it looked like the women do the work and the men watch. He chuckled and agreed, “The men, they supervise,” he said. We all nodded in agreement at our profound musing and the incident would live on as an amusing anecdote in the many coffee origin slide presentations I would give in those early years.

This was the early 90’s when coffee producers were still reeling from the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement. Coffee prices had lost 60 percent of their value and farmers were desperate. The situation seemed to affect the very farmers I had identified as having the best potential for the coffee I wanted to buy. So when Fairtrade came along I was one of the early adopters. I adopted it because it aligned with my values as a coffee buyer. I wanted to support small-farmer cooperatives and the Fairtrade Certified label communicated those values to my customers.

Through the Fairtrade Premiums I have witnessed firsthand, not only the improvement of quality from small farmer cooperatives, but also the improvement in the quality of life in coffee-growing communities. However the issue of gender continued to haunt me seeing variations of gender labor division around the world.

For example, work in the mills and operating machinery tended to be the bastion of men, whereas the manual labor, especially in the field, more often than not fell to women and their children. Moreover, positions of authority in these communities more often than not were dominated by men, despite the fact that women tended to manage household finances.

Around 2003, women from a cooperative in Northern Peru realized that through the Fairtrade certification system they could identify coffee coming from farms where women held titles to the land. An idea came to them to begin separating these coffees and offer them as “Women’s Coffee” and use the premium earned to fund women-specific programs in their community. The idea has since spread and a once silent and marginalized group is now empowered and making a difference in coffee-growing communities around the world.

Ernani, a leader of one of the newest women’s groups to form in Aceh, Sumatra said, “in a tra­ditional cooper­a­tive, the men vote for how the social pre­mi­ums are to be invested; often times the women’s pri­or­i­ties are dif­fer­ent and our voices are not heard.”

Fairtrade has been instrumental in many innovative solutions that, most importantly, come from the farmer’s themselves. Without the Fairtrade network, small farmer communities would still be without a voice in the global coffee trade. Initiatives such as Women’s Coffee is just another example of how Fairtrade can make a difference in the lives of small coffee farmers and their communities and ensure that women and men have access to the same opportunities.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization suggests that 150 million people could be lifted out of hunger by removing the gender inequalities prevalent in agriculture. For another look at gender equality, check out the story of Edy Rivera of El Salvador who’s helping develop the next crop of women leaders in coffee on Fairtrade America’s blog.


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