Will we have a female Juan Valdez?

Ten coffees later and I’m back at home, writing this blog before I lose the adrenaline from the first day of Expoespeciales – the Colombian specialty coffee fair, this year hosted in Bogota.

The day included an official opening ceremony, speeches and press conferences, plus the start of the barista and coffee tasting competitions. It was also an occasion to catch up with coffee friends such as Astrid Medina from Gaitania, winner of the 2015 Colombian Cup of Excellence and Andres from Don Danilo Coffee, Marsella.

The two main messages of the conference were clear.

First, according to Roberto Vélez Vallejo, head of the Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation, Colombia did well to bet on ‘specialty coffee’ back in the 1990s. Now it has to focus even more on ‘sustainability’, highly sought after by European consumers. (Blog on this to follow).

Second, women play a key role in the coffee industry and it’s time to recognise their work and further strengthen their position.  

And there were ‘women in coffee’ everywhere at this year’s fair!

This was partly because it also played host to the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) convention, bringing together women from 23 countries to discuss the current state of the coffee industry and how to improve conditions for women. 
It’s a relevant initiative, given that about 30% of Colombian coffee farms are owned by women.

However, as usual there’s a ‘but’.

Most women own small sized farms and a paternalistic approach still persists towards their work. Time and again I heard people saying that women are better than men at picking and processing coffee cherries because of their natural role as family carer.

While this might be true, isn’t it also worth recognising their business, associative and leadership skills?  

At the event I heard women in the audience asking for more structured and coherent public policies to support their work, as well as debates about the price of coffee at origin. To me, these determined women from several continents seemed very knowledgeable of all aspects of the coffee business

And as the President of the IWCA, Mary Santos, said - women are deeply involved in the coffee industry, ‘from the seed to the cup’.

Back at home, the image of the fair’s opening event remained in my mind: the iconic Juan Valdez surrounded by women farmers from across the globe. Although I’m definitely a big fan of Juan, isn’t it time for Colombia to also have a female figure representing its coffee industry? Is the sector mature enough?  

Women in Coffee

Gaitania - a village nestled in a wild and beautiful valley in southern Tolima, Colombia. From Bogota it takes 11 hours in a small bus, crowded with people, chickens and dogs. And it’s worth it.

At the end of this journey, about a week ago, we met with the winner of Colombia’s 2015 Cup of Excellence competition, Astrid Medina Pereira, plus a whole host of other cafeteros (coffee growers) living in the area.

In fact this small hamlet produced six of the top 31 winning coffees this year. And as we quickly realized, coffee in Gaitania isn’t just a man’s business. Women also grow it, and to very high standards!!  

Astrid inherited her farm, named Buenavista, from her father Aureliano, a local community leader killed by the world’s oldest rebel group, the FARC.

Despite this and other traumatic events, she and her husband Raul have worked hard on the 10 hectares of coffee plantation, sowing mainly Caturra, Castillo and Colombia varieties, although we also saw some Yellow Bourbon.

The rich soil, abundance of fresh water and the farm’s high altitude (1800m – 2000m above sea level) all helped to grow the prize-winning coffee, plus “the love we put in”, Astrid told us.  

At 38 years of age and with two children, Astrid comes across as a very genuine person, passionate about her business and caring for her community. And just because you’re a coffee farmer doesn’t mean you can’t have your nails and hair done like city women, she told us. Here, here. Well said.  

One of the points she insists on most is the need for better education in the area, so Gaitania’s children have the tools to move forward. Kids with better education will be better farmers one day, she points out.

Amazingly, this year was the first time Astrid participated in the Cup of Excellence, making her victory all the more remarkable.

Buenavista’s coffee was rated 90.2 out of a total of 100 points by the panel of international judges that travelled to Colombia to taste it. Proceeds from its sale will help finance improvements on her farm, including new stands for drying the beans, Astrid told us.

Two doors down the road in Gaitania lives Edith Enciso Yasso who won the Cup of Excellence in 2006.

The award helped Edith secure a permanent buyer who pays above-market prices. In fact, Australian roaster Campos Coffee sells a bag of her coffee for about $30, she says.

Edith is a smiley and determined woman, with lots of experience in the coffee business. Walking around her farm, named 'La Isla' (island) because it’s flanked by two rivers, one can really appreciate the effort that goes in.

Workers are treated well and the coffee is grown under the shade of orange, cedar and banana trees, in line with Fairtrade (FLO) and Rainforest Alliance certifications.

Perhaps surprisingly, 31 percent of farms in Colombian coffee areas are owned by women, giving them a greater say in local decision-making bodies, plus a higher salary and more control over their daily lives. And when Astrid, Edith and their fellow cafeteras are producing 90-point coffees, that’s something we can all celebrate.