December 27, 2012 | Economic Opportunity

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

Who’s growing the beans for your morning latte? Chances are good it’s a woman—and she’s fighting for her rights in a male-dominated industry.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

By Samuel Ritholtz

“When my mother was widowed at 61, it was hard for her to keep her coffee business,” says Josiane Cotrim, her voice both rueful and indignant. “No one respected her because she didn’t have the same skills as my father.”

The experience of Cotrim’s mother in rural Brazil is hardly unique. The production and selling of coffee—the largest traded commodity in the world after crude oil—remains an international boys club, despite the fact that the majority of growers worldwide are women. Women in the industry tend to be underpaid, undertrained, and shut out of decision-making circles.

Which is where Cotrim and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) come in. Since launching in 2003 the IWCA has been working to empower women in the coffee industry. (Cotrim is a co-founder of IWCA’s Brazil chapter.) Besides providing a forum in which women can share knowledge, IWAC offers training and resources so members can become better advocates for themselves and more effective businesswomen.

That’s especially needed in Brazil, a country nearly synonymous with coffee. In 2010, for example, Brazil’s delegation to the World Coffee Conference 2010 was all men. “[Brazilian] women work as hard as men, but they don’t have the same rights or recognition,” says Cotrim. Harking back to her family’s experience, Cotrim notes that when her mother—like many other widows—was in danger of losing her farm, the government shuttled her into a vocational baking program, rather than teaching her to run a coffee business. “They failed to listen to what these women needed. My mom spent 40 years in the kitchen; what she needed was to learn how to cup the coffee plant.” (Cupping is a technique that allows growers to assess the quality of their beans during the post-harvest production process.)

Brazil, Nicaragua, Kenya, Costa Rica—women in all major coffee countries face the same challenges. In fact, 90 percent of coffee is grown in developing countries by small farmers. A long chain of middlemen and processors means when you plunk down $3.75 for your morning latte, less than 4 cents end up with the farmer who grew the beans.

But that equation could be changing thanks to IWAC. “Together we can make the difference, “ says Cotrim. “Isolated you feel alone, but together we feel like we belong to something. You are no longer Maria the daughter of this man or Maria, this man’s wife, you are Maria belonging to the IWCA.”

To learn more about IWCA, go to:

IWCA will hold its third International Women in Coffee Convention in Guatemala City from February 7-9. Learn more at

Additional reporting by Emily Brigstocke