Women empowerment: How CoffeeHack is changing coffee business

female coffee farmer

The need for women empowerment in the coffee supply chain

Gender equality is one of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) we are supposed to meet by 2030.

But are we on track to achieve that?

According to McKinsey & Company, we’re not as there is a significant gender inequality in the workplace.

Their Women in the Workplace 2020 study shows female workers are still struggling to reach the top of the corporate ladder in the US. Out of 400,000 women, less than 40% occupy managerial positions, with as low as 21% of them being on a C-level role.

Numbers don't look promising when checking the coffee production in the world either.

In 2008, the International Trade Coffee (ITC) surveyed women in the coffee supply chain across 15 countries. ITC data revealed women’s role to be mostly labour-based. Very few of them (an average of 10%) owned a business. The legal restrictions on women’s ownership rights in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) clearly don’t help with that.

More recent reviews suggest gender inequality persists, yet studies highlighted a data gap on women’s participation along the coffee supply chain.

The bright side of the story 

Yet, coffee associations across the world are striving to change the current situation.

Like the International Women's Coffee Alliance (IWCA), a non-profit organisation promoting women empowerment within the global coffee industry.

A IWCA subsidiary, the Jamaican Women in Coffee (JWiC), has launched the Higher Ground project. The JWIC joined forces with the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to train Jamaican women coffee producers in sustainable farming practices, business, marketing and leadership skills.

The program aims at improving the quality of the women-farmed coffee as well as empowering the self-sustaining growth of the female producers community.

Despite a clear under-representation, success stories of coffee business women have been brewing up over the last years.

To share further insights on this hot coffee topic, we asked Antonio Salituro, a freelance sustainability writer, to interview Patricia Schoenbach.

Besides being CoffeeHack’s advisor, Patricia is a green coffee trader and a certified coffee Q grader.

A coffee talk with a passionate expert 

An easy question to warm up. What’s your good morning coffee?

When I’m home, I usually roast beans from different origins — mainly Central/South America coffees — in my Ikawa home roaster. Then I brew the beans with a pour over, usually Chemex or V60. I prefer my coffee clean, with no milk or sugar.

A coffee pro answer. And you’re indeed. What is a coffee Q grader? And how have you become one?

A Q grader is a professional coffee quality expert, like a sommelier but for coffee. I got my Q Grader certification in 2017. It was a very thorough examination process, including multiple tests to analyse the physical and sensory attributes of Arabica or Robusta beans, both on an unroasted and roasted basis. It’s a common “language / scoring system” developed by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) to differentiate between coffee qualities. This can be useful to everyone in the industry.

A coffee sommelier. Sounds impressive. Well done.

Where does your passion for coffee come from?

I feel like it’s in my DNA, but beyond that it’s the people behind every cup we drink, starting at the farm level and ending with the barista. Everyone has a different inspiring story to share. I started drinking coffee at a young age with a lot of milk and sugar until I learnt more about the different coffee varieties and its delicious attributes. Now I only drink black coffee.

My passion for coffee brewed up during my career in the coffee industry. In 2015, I started working for our family business, a New York-based coffee importer called Excelco Trading. Through attending various coffee conferences I had the opportunity to meet with our current and potential new customers and suppliers. I truly enjoy networking and working with the people in this great industry. Being a foodie and having sensitive taste buds also helps.

A gladiator in the coffee arena

I know you’re active in the “women in coffee” scene. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Are you a member of any coffee associations or coops?

Yes, absolutely. I’m on the Board of Directors of the US Women in Coffee, which is the US chapter of the IWCA. The main goal is women empowerment along the coffee supply chain. The IWCA mainly has chapters in producing countries to support the farmers, but now they’re adding more and more chapters in consuming countries too. That’s why the US Women in Coffee was born.

Since it was founded in 2019, our coffee association has supported coffee professionals by inspiring, empowering and connecting women through local and regional engagement. We’re working on so many great projects. On top of that, our family business has a 60 / 40 ratio of women vs men. And it’s been like this for several years already. When I started in the industry, the conferences were very male-dominated but this has changed significantly since then.

Gender equality statistics in the coffee business aren’t encouraging, so kudos to you.

What are the main issues with gender equality that female coffee bean farmers and producers still face today? 

Land ownership and access to credit are among the main gender inequality causes. But this varies across each producing country. Access to technology and education is another challenge for equal opportunities. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said women would increase their productivity by up to 30% if they had access to the same resources (e.g. farm plots, money and technology) as men.

There seems to be a lack of data on the disparity between men and women in the coffee business. Is there a gender pay gap?

I would say data is lacking and controversial. For coffee roasting jobs, there’s not a great gender pay gap in consuming countries like the UK. Starbucks UK claims their female employees earn just a bit less than men on average. But I know of an SCA white paper about East African female coffee producers that tells a totally different story. In 2014, across seven countries, men gained nearly twice as much as women. This has to change.

What caused this giant gender pay gap in those producing countries?

A smaller size and quality of the women-led farms were among the gender pay gap causes. On top of that, as I mentioned earlier on, lack of credit and land accessibility for female producers are big factors too.

Brewing up a solution

So, what should we do to address the gender equality issues in coffee bean farming?

That’s a tricky one. Of course, equal access to resources could be one of the gender inequality solutions. Ideally, coffee coops and other organizations have to provide adequate technical training for female coffee producers. In addition, coffee businesses like CoffeeHack should support and promote female producers.

Another gender inclusive solution would be to encourage collaboration between female and male farmers starting from the household level. And of course, money is one of the big problems with gender equality. Tools like microcredit schemes can be a massive help.

I’m aware you work for a coffee importer. Are you planning to set up your own coffee business to become a successful executive?

Another tough question. I think one can be an entrepreneur within every company by setting up a new department, hiring new team members, promoting a new product, etc. I don’t have anything planned yet, but of course, my dream would be to grow organically and lead our family business to the next generation.

Have you got a role model you inspire to? Other than your brother, I mean.

Not anyone in particular, but I have the utmost respect for female producers that own and run their farms across the globe while at the same time raising children. This is inspiring to me.

In fact, I helped my brother source coffee from female producers in Colombia to bring “The Lioness” to market.

Sounds interesting. Can you share a bit more on the story behind The Lioness?

Sure. It’s inspired by Aurora Izquierdo, an indigenous woman belonging to the Arhuaco community of Santa Marta. She left her tribe to get higher education, a mission impossible for her female peers. Once she finished her studies, Aurora fought for indigenous rights to provide them with more educational opportunities. And she also worked on improving food security and protecting the local environment. And now she’s a coffee producer. Through her association, ANEI, she employed 112 female fairtrade coffee farmers and supported 33 students with scholarships.

I must admit the product name makes a lot of sense.

As a CoffeeHack advisor, how do you think the brand can contribute to women empowerment throughout the coffee supply chain?

I would say continuing to support female coffee producers by sourcing their product directly or through a transparent coffee supply chain. This leads to farmers’ higher profitability and accessibility to international markets. Also, through my network in the coffee business we’re working on identifying and funding targeted sustainability projects to support communities in need. Ideally, we would like to use a percentage of CoffeeHack sales and customer donations that we can give back to the coffee bean farmers. All these would come on top of farmers receiving their Fairtrade cash premium, which is a good starting point.

That would be an honorable commitment of CoffeeHack.

Right, let’s close this interview with a piece of advice for a woman who is thinking about becoming a coffee entrepreneur. What would you suggest to her?

Build a network and work your network! Travel to coffee producing countries, attend coffee conferences and related events. There are so many great people working in this industry that are willing to help and share their experiences. If you have access to a mentor outside of your company, family, friends, or even outside your industry, that can be super helpful for personal growth. Many lessons in life are transferable to different situations and can help you think outside the box. We all love different sources of inspirations. There’s plenty of space for innovation, and you see different kinds of creative solutions in particular on the retail side, CoffeeHack is the best example. All these will fuel your passion and let you grow exponentially!

Your brother chose an excellent advisor. Networking is definitely a key tool to leverage in any kind of context.

Thanks a lot for your time and your insights, Patricia.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me!

As Patricia mentioned, CoffeeHack is launching “The Lioness”, a coffee exclusively sourced from female producers in Colombia.

In the future, the company is also planning to devote a % of their sales to projects that support women in the coffee business. 

Will you join us in the women empowerment movement?

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