Empowering women to improve lives

International Women’s Coffee Alliance

Legal and cultural practices in many coffee growing regions around the world restrict women from the economic opportunities that would generate significant improvements for their families, their businesses and their communities. The empowerment of these women with these opportunities to make social and economic change must engage both men and women in understanding the value that can be brought to their lives.

Recently at the Compak Golden Bean held in Portland, Oregon, Kelle Vandenberg, Vice President of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, was invited to update delegates on the work of the Alliance and some of their successes so far.


Our mission is very simple: we want to empower women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives and to encourage and recognise women in all aspects of the coffee industry. Meaningful and sustainable lives; it’s a very simple concept, but it means very different things depending on where you live in this world.

So the question is, why? It’s because these women need our help. In the world of coffee, 70% of the work is performed by women, yet only 15% of the land and the processing plant’s coffee production is owned by women.

What does that mean? It means that they have no access to money, they have no access to power, and they have no voice. They have no way of building a better life for themselves or for their children.

So, how can we help them? The most common question we are asked is, “So, what is it that the IWCA do?” Our business model is based on success by localisation; we work on the ground with women in coffee regions and help them identify and voice their needs and their challenges, and we help them get organised. And through that organisation, they find their voice. We call that organisation chapter development. We now have 19 chapters of the IWCA in coffee producing regions around the world. Through these chapters women come together and identify and solve their own issues that are unique to their own regions.

So why are women interested in creating an IWCA chapter in their region? Simply put, these chapters are a force of change for the lives of these women. They build powerful connections among women at a national and international level throughout the coffee industry. It is a chance to open doors into international markets, quality competitions, industry mentorships and other helpful connections along the seed to cup value chain which offers an interactive opportunity for women to realise their full potential for business development.

Women’s groups also improve visibility; consequently, the consumer market place recognises the benefits of this in the coffee community, as people will support products that are connected to such benefits. This exposure offers a fundamental social change for these women; it offers enhancement, leadership and above all, gives them self confidence to trust their decision making process.

So we help them get organised; we are there to support them with strategic, technical and leadership training. We help them gain access to trade that they would not otherwise have. The IWCA investment is empowerment through this training, and that in turns has a ripple effect on the ground. It’s amazing to see the power that these women develop when they realise that not only is their voice heard, but it’s recognised and it brings value to the coffee industry as a whole.

Our work is best demonstrated through the success stories.
Women are natural community builders, and we have seen this in India. The India chapter came together and organised a health care camp for three coffee growing villages. The chapters raised enough money for two doctors to be flown in, who were able to treat 95 women – most of whom had never had any type of health screening. They were able to detect cataracts, malnutrition and anaemia, and they were able to treat these women. This is now an ongoing health screening initiative taking place in India.

We jump over to Burundi, where the IWCA has worked together with Burundi’s Friends International, which is a US based not for profit organisation. They raised funds to give 110 women two goats each. Goats are extremely valuable in these countries, and with two goats you have fertiliser for your crops, milk for your children, and the offspring then become a currency that can then be traded and used for tuitions and medical expenses etc. It changes lives – something as simple as that.

Also in Burundi, the IWCA Burundi chapter were able to take their top quality coffee to a company called BD Imports for the second year in a row, and they sold it in a profit splitting plan that was developed to provide bonus payments for the IWCA chapters. After the distribution, one of the women, Miwazo, a Burundi chapter member, wanted to share her story.
“I was at my home when I heard about IWCA. I became an IWCA member in March 2013. I received 60,000 Fr Bu (approx. $40.00 USD) as a bonus for the coffee that I sold to the washing station. I bought this bicycle. Now if my child is ill, I can take him to see the doctor on my bicycle. Today, I have received 140,000 Fr Bu. (approx. $90 USD). I am thankful to the IWCA for this and I will continue to work well with IWCA, and I hope to get a motorised scooter in the near future.”

So what is the plan for the future?
The bottom line is that we want to eliminate poverty and strengthen the coffee industry at its roots. We need to make sure that women have access to this money.

So how do we get there?
We will continue to establish new chapters; in fact, we have chapters in formation right now in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Equador, Haiti, Australia and in the EU.
Research and Development: cataloging that research and development and gathering the data. For example, how many women are in the coffee supply chain and use this information as a powerful lobbying tool for gender equality throughout the globe, but specifically within the coffee industry.

And most importantly, access to trade, to develop the norms and standard for coffee produced by women. Without the IWCA, many of these women are alone; with the IWCA they have a forum. They exchange information, they share best practices, they are able to explore diversification of income and sources. They finally have a voice within their community. But most importantly, they build their self confidence and they build their self esteem, and that is in turn taught to their next generation.

And that is how you eliminate the silence and continue to keep the voice being heard. We urge you to get involved. If it’s not with the IWCA then get involved with any other organisation or program. Find out what the living standards are like in the regions that your coffee is coming from – it matters.