How women coffee farmers in Brazil are building economic independence
The Coopfam (Cooperativa dos Agricultores Familiares de Poço Fundo e Região) coffee cooperative is empowering women to produce a speciality organic coffee and improve their livelihoods
Women in the Brazilian coffee-growing community of Poço Fundo (Minas Gerais) play a central role in Oikocredit partner Coopfam’s future and support their families by producing and selling their own organic coffee. The Mulheres Organizadas Buscando Independência (Organised Women Seeking Independence) or MOBI women’s group, as part of the Coopfam coffee cooperative, sells its Café Feminino at a 10% higher price than standard organic coffee. The women reinvest the premium in building the capacity of their members and empowering more women to produce coffee independently and improve their livelihoods.
In rural Minas Gerais, Brazil’s biggest coffee-growing state, women typically supported their husbands on the family plantation but didn’t get involved in the cooperative’s business or farming decisions. This changed forever in 2006, when Coopfam started to focus more on empowering women to play an equal role in producing the Arabica coffee that had been a part of their lives for decades.
“The women participating in MOBI want to do more than take care of children and the house – they want to have their own place in Coopfam’s coffee production; they want their voices to be heard,” explains Vânia Lucia Pereira da Silva, MOBI member and vice-president of Coopfam, whose family owns 12 hectares of plantations. “Women are an important part of the production, so they must also be part of the decision-making.”
As one of MOBI’s leaders from the outset, Vânia has helped her fellow MOBI members to learn about every aspect of producing organic coffee in the hills of Poço Fundo, from managing pests to harvesting cherries and drying the beans. Importantly, she also took part in leadership trainings provided by Coopfam, overcoming cultural barriers to become one of two women participating in Coopfam’s senior management team.
Oikocredit decided to partner with Coopfam because the cooperative is no stranger to supporting initiatives that focus on people and the environment. Coopfam shares not only Oikocredit’s ambition to improve the lives of smallholder farmers, but also its focus on fair trade as a key means of livelihood. It was the first cooperative in Brazil to produce organic and fair trade coffee in the late 1990s, and is investing Oikocredit’s loan to further support its members by helping them gain access to local, national and international markets. It now counts 450 smallholder producers among its members.
“The organic approach of Coopfam is not only technical but stresses the philosophy that producers have to protect the environment, sell good produce and take care of their families’ health,” says Coopfam’s president, Clemilson José Pereira.
For the women of MOBI, the health benefits of organic farming were among the key reasons why they wanted to play a greater role in Coopfam’s coffee business.
“I started to produce organic because I was thinking about the health of my family,” says Vânia. “At first, I didn’t know how to grow organic coffee, but Coopfam helps its producers to learn about organic farming.”
Fellow MOBI member Maria Aparicida Paive Borges, who cultivates 12,000 coffee trees on her family’s farm, agrees: “We like organic coffee because it preserves nature and our health - it’s good to work without agri-chemicals.”
And what makes Café Feminino so special?
According to MOBI member Dayany de Assis dos Santos Ferreira, who grows Café Feminino on part of the plot she co-owns with her husband: “We give a lot of love and care to the coffee. Care and attention make the quality of the coffee. It’s tough work, but I feel we can do the job.”
Beyond practical agricultural training and knowledge-sharing sessions, the resourceful MOBI women are also supplementing their income by growing roses and learning to make handicrafts using the remains of the coffee plants after harvesting. They sell their creations in the local community in between coffee harvests.
By participating more fully in Coopfam and developing their own enterprise, the women are building confidence and respect in the community, becoming more financially independent and strengthening their families’ income.
Maria sums it up: “I am very happy to participate in MOBI – now I’m taking part in every part of the farm – in the crops, in the selling and in the cooperative.”
Importantly, Vania believes that empowering women to participate more fully in local coffee growing activities is vital to slowing the ‘rural exodus’ of women and young people to towns and cities, thereby helping to ensure the future sustainability of this thriving coffee-growing community.