2012 Sustainability Award

This article is written by Alexandra Katona-Carrol and appears in the April issue of Chronicle, the SCAA’s monthly magazine. 

This year, the SCAA’s Sustainability Council is proud to showcase the 2012 Sustainability Award project winner, Responding to Climate Change: Building Community-Based Reliance. The project focuses on sustaining the production of high quality coffee in the face of climate change. It pilots a set of proactive interventions that faces the reality that some degree of climate change is inevitable, disruption of supply is likely, decreases in quality are expected and on-the-ground defenses need to be built to protect specialty coffee production.

The project is unique in that it was developed in a collaborative effort between Thanksgiving Coffee Company, a U.S.-based roaster, and the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, a long-time supplier, with the specific goal of ensuring the future viability of this successful trading relationship. The project is funded by PROGRESO, a Dutch NGO, and administered by Rwandan Economic Development Initiative (REDI), a Rwandan NGO. The collective goal is to establish a pilot project that would allow for refinement of methodology, metrics and funding strategies, which will then be replicated throughout our supply chain, and beyond.

The introduction of practices that increase the resilience and adaptive capacity of the 1,818 farms of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative are a central goal. Specifically, the actions of the project create targeted defenses against projected increases in temperature, pests, irregularity in rain and drought, shortened ripening and quality loss, and the resulting loss of specialty coffee. As such, the project deploys a set of widely recognized best practices around shade intercropping, erosion control, and watershed conservation, in response to site-specific climate change risk assessments, thereby creating targeted defenses against these new threats to production.

The project’s strategy revolves around the goal of enhancing resilience: the ability of an ecosystem to withstand extremes in weather without diminishing its productive capacity. To develop this resilience, the project targets a set of interventions designed to protect topsoil by preventing erosion, decrease farm temperature by developing shade canopy, increase soil fertility by introducing nutrient-fixing trees and leaf litter, and reduce the risk of drought by increasing aquifer absorption. Broadly put, it seeks to increase the value of ecosystem services by increasing the quantity, quality, diversity, and distribution of beneficial components of the ecosystem.

To date, the project has achieved a return of one tree for every 13 cents ($23,220 / 175,542 trees). This is a high return on investment in reforestation projects and is made possible by the demand-driven methodology of the project. This return is also exceptionally secure: many reforestation efforts are successful at planting trees, but because they have been subsidized, most trees end up as firewood or fences long before they begin to offer ecosystem services. Because of the project’s focus on education, tree planting and ecological restoration in this project is driven by farmer demand for the long-term services provided by trees. The project was developed in response to concerns from the Cooperative’s members around the impact of climate change. Similar concerns are shared by farmers around the world and can serve as the starting point for replication of this project, in particular, its methodology.

Thanksgiving Coffee Company is also in the process of developing a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, The Resilience Fund, to finance similar projects throughout our supply chain. The recognition garnered by this award will strengthen the fundraising efforts of the new organization and create up to eleven additional climate change adaptation projects throughout our supply chain. Though this project will focus directly on Thanksgiving Coffee’s supply chain, the goal is to help articulate strategies that can be employed by other companies in their own supply chains. It is important to note that the trading relationships typically require less than 20% of a Cooperative’s production, so there is a large quantity of coffee available to other industry partners that will benefit from these works.

The project’s strategy integrates a demand-driven methodology that creates a set of incentives to catalyze a “race to the top” whereby farmers are seeking to implement the identified best practices. The ultimate goal is to secure the supply of great coffee for years to come, and to prove that though climate change threatens to destroy the supply of our industry’s coffee, we can invest in long-term solutions that defend farmers, their farms, and their production for years to come.

Alexandra Katona-Carroll has been in the specialty coffee industry for over five years. She has worked for SCAA and works part-time as the programs manager at CQI. She is the founder of a new company, Sensaay, which is dedicated to the promotion of specialty coffee, craft beer and fine tea.

Fair Trade & Climate Change

Depending on who you ask, one of the most important international meetings of the year is taking place in Durban, South Africa. COP 17 as it’s known, short for the “Conference of the Parties” is a gathering of signatories of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, informally known as the “Earth Summit”. Tucked away in all of that terminology is the fact that this is the place where the world gets together to talk about what it’s going to do about climate change. And, one hopes, take action.

Again, depending on who you ask, there is a lot to hope for from this conference, or there is little hope that much will come out of it. Signaling a shift away from international commitment, last week Canada announced that it would withdraw its membership from the Kyoto Protocol, a cornerstone of global climate policy, albeit a failed effort. Canada’s move sends a clear signal that Kyoto and its emission reduction targets is failed. Before we get too critical of Canada we should remind ourselves that the United States never even signed on to Kyoto in the first place.

Leaders of faith, including the Pope and Archibishiop Desmond Tutu are speaking clearly about the need for dramatic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, and develop adaptation strategies that give farmers in the third world a fighting chance.

Meanwhile, developing countries are moving forward in an effort to reduce emissions—in fact, according to a recent study conducted by Oxfam International, they are set to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions at a much greater rate than the wealthy countries of the world.

But besides the diplomatic wrangling and multilateral agreements, what does COP17 mean for farmers?

Recently, the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) published a letter titled “Adaptation Measures Must Work for Farmers” which highlights the need for a substantial and coordinated approach to funding adaptation. Adaptation in this context means moving beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and thereby future increases in global temperature. Here, adaptation refers to the need to support farmers in the face of climate change, and to develop holistic solutions that will allow them to buffer themselves and their farms from changing weather that threatens their livelihoods.

In our own work, we’ve launched a pilot project with our partners at the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative in an effort to define best practices that will help keep farmers on their farms, producing great coffee, for generations.

For more on this topic, see the link below for a great collection of voices from the grassroots. Stay tuned for more news as COP17 progresses as wraps up.

 Fair Trade in Africa





A Visit to Guaya’b, Guatemala

A few weeks ago we got an email from a man who introduced himself as Kieran, a guy from Vancouver BC who was riding his bike through Central America and wanted to know if we could help him connect with our partners at the Guaya’b Cooperative, in Guatemala. Last week Kieran visited Guaya’b, and by his account, had a great time. Here’s a bit from his blog, which you should visit to read the story in its entirety, as well as see some of his photos.


Not far across the border in Guatemala is the remote town of Jacaltenango. I hoped I’d be able to visit two co-operatives there, and as it was ‘only’ 50 km off my main route I gambled on getting lucky when I arrived. Yes it was only 50 km, but the uphill climbs more than made up for the short distance.

I had a little time in the town at the weekend to track down the Guaya’b office and then I dropped by on Monday morning to see what I could find. I ended up spending six days in the town as I felt I got very lucky with both co-operatives.Jacaltenango is a small, remote town up in the highlands. It is perched high above the Rio Azul with a number of smaller communities dotted around the surrounding hillsides at various degrees of precariousness.

Guaya’b is a coffee and honey co-operative comprising more than 400 members. It produces 100% Fair Trade products though its coffee is both conventional and organic. They have organic (US & European), Fair Trade (FLO-Cert) and “bird-friendly” (Smithsonian) certifications. Mayacert are a national organic certification body but Guaya’b export all their coffee. Most of the members are indigenous Popti’ with the rest mestizos. Guaya’b exports all its products to Europe and North America. In organic coffee, the European and North American coffee are kept separate. All coffee exported is ‘oro’ (green) beans. Conventional coffee predominantly finds its way to Spain. The honey is produced primarily for markets in Austria, Germany and Belgium.

Lucas Silvestre is the President/Manager and he was very happy to let me get an insight into the Guaya’b operations. Manuel, who oversees quality control, took me to the bodega (warehouse) where I was able to see coffee and honey processing operations and one of the Guaya’b coffee nurseries.

Click here for the full story. 



Who’s That At Our Door?

While coffee sales tend to sag slightly in summertime, socializing increases exponentially. We love giving tours of our space, offering up great coffees to taste, walking the path that coffee takes in our warehouse from the loading dock through the roasting room and production floor, outside to the community garden planted on land we donated. Last week we had a number of visitors (some planned, some drop-ins) that represented the total spectrum of our business.

One was a longstanding customer from neighboring Lake County (he and his wife came to the coast to escape the blistering heat inland) that wanted an exact recipe for brewing coffee into his 2 cup French Press. We shared ours with him and gave him a sneak peak at our forthcoming brewing guide. Be sure to get in touch if you would like a copy of it when it’s available.

Another was from Sadao, the manager at the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Coco500 and his partner Katie. They were excited to do side-by-side tastings of our seasonal single origin coffees. Coco500 is a great partner to us, as inspired as we are about identifying and showcasing unique characteristics in coffees and thinking about flavor profiles and pairings with seasonal food.

Kieran Smith, an engineer who was volunteering with Fair Trade Vancouver got inspired to bike from his home city in British Columbia to Santiago, Chile (he stopped and saw us along the way, three and a half weeks into a journey he expected to take 9 months in total). He was inspired to lift the veil off of Fair Trade as most consumers know it and talk about ethics in trade and sustainability along the supply chain. We drank espresso, walked around, and he took still photos and shot video of our operations. He asked questions about the cooperatives we work with around the world and how we think about and define “community empowerment”. If we ever get our hands on that video, I’ll be sure to share. In the meantime you can follow along on his blog.

Finally, we were visited by the team from Fundacion MangoMundo a new foundation committed to raising awareness about Nicaragua and connecting more folks to the beautiful arts, crafts, and agricultural products (like coffee) that Nicaragua boasts. They invited Paul to speak to a group of high school students in San Francisco about his work in Nicaragua that began in the mid-1980’s. We drank Byron’s Maracaturra, a coffee that we look forward to year after year that had just arrived from the Matagalpa region grown by an amazing farmer that we have been buying from for two decades.

Each of these visitors came with a unique interest and appreciation for our work. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the technical side – trying to help the home brewer achieve a more perfect cup. Sometimes we get wholly focused on seasonality and educating our customers about what’s fresh and where it’s coming from. Othertimes we are storytellers, focused on being a bridge between our customers and the communities where our coffee grows – talking about exciting projects on the ground and the farmers we know around the world– and some people connect with how we began, as a company committed to using coffee as a medium to get out a message about important issues by partnering with organizations doing meaningful work. We are all of these things, a relationship-focused company that for nearly 40 years has been trying to do better business.

Thank you for helping us grow and evolve and challenge ourselves. We can’t wait to celebrate 40 years with you next year!!

Recognizing the Underpaid Work of Women


Although it could be argued that coffee (unlike money) actually grows on trees, the truth is that many hands and much hard work is required to produce and sell coffee. Understanding the importance of this work is one of the cornerstones of our relationship-based business model: by respecting the farmer’s craft, offering premium prices for quality, and building long-term commitments to each other, we create a win-win business for ourselves, and for our partners at origin.

Natividad Lopez Garcia, Reina Isabel Quintero, and Flor Rodriguez, founding members of SOPPEXCCA’s women’s cooperative.

One of the hands that touched your coffee this morning belonged to the farmer who planted, pruned, and harvested your coffee. When we picture fair trade, we mostly picture this person—and for good reason. In many respects, our efforts to build a more just and sustainable coffee trade have focused on empowering these farmers. There are, however, other hands that care for your coffee, and for years, these workers have been left on the margins. We’re working to change that, starting with our partners at the SOPPEXCCA Cooperative in Nicaragua. There, on the sunny foothills of Jinotega’s mountains, a cooperative of 42 women has come together in search of a sustainable future.

These women are coffee sorters. During the harvest, they spend 8-10 hours each day drying, sorting, and bagging coffee SOPPEXCCA has bought from its member farmers. Day after day, from October through March, these women ensure that coffee is evenly dried on large cement patios, hand-sorted to select out any imperfections, and stored by lot, farm, and farmer in a complex but completely traceable system. The work of these women is critical—it’s equivalent to the work of a cellar master in a winery, carefully tending to the slowly maturing product and sorting out imperfections.

According to Fatima Ismael, SOPPEXCCA’s General Manager, these women were organized in a cooperative so that they could overcome their history of poverty and marginalization. “The world of coffee, from producer organizations, to industry, to various certifications has analyized from a human perspective the equity and justice of coffee supply chains. There is an ongoing struggle towards conditions that enable sustainability of producers and a chance to overcome poverty and marginalization. One forgotten sector is the workers—predominantly women—who sort farmer’s coffee once it has reached the cooperative’s dry mill. These women have been an invisible part of the chain, in essence, they are harvest the harvest, improving quality through sorting and care, but their work has been marginalized.”

Since 2010, the 42 employees of SOPPEXCCA’s coffee mill have been organized in a cooperative to help overcome his history of poverty and marginalization. This women’s cooperative has created a matched-savings program to help its members begin their own business once the harvest season ends, it has built and supplied a member-owned grocery store that offers basic stables at cost, it has offered cervical cancer screening and treatment to its members, and it has created an initiative to transition cookstoves from wood to clean-burning stoves that can use chaff produced by coffee milling for fuel. Funded by a $10,000 loan comprised of contributions from SOPPEXCCA and Thanksgiving Coffee, this cooperative and its members are pushing our business model forward, improving quality, and ensuring that everyone behind the production of a great cup of coffee benefits from our business.


When asked what the cooperative means to her, Sayda Rios explains the savings she and her fellow members see when they shop at their grocery store. “We buy in quantity at the wholesale market in Matagalpa, direct from the distributors. We go there, with a list of the items members want to buy, and compare prices from the various sellers, then we negotiate, and get the best possible prices. By the time we’ve come home, we’re saving 30-40 percent on groceries, compared to the prices we use to have to pay at the local store.” She concludes by pointing out the change that these women have made in their lives. “By joining together we’ve managed to make our lives better.”

The School in Los Alpes, Nicaragua

Adolfo Talavera, 2004.

Adolfo Talavera is a tall man with a scraggly beard and a deep, raspy voice. Listening to him talk about his gracefully choreographed organic coffee farm—the way he turns left-over coffee cherry pulp into rich organic fertilizer, sequences the planting of shade and coffee trees, or protects the source of a mountainside spring—you marvel at the joy he takes from his work, and the twinkle that it sparks in his eyes. You might also think that this joy is his dream, or the purpose of his work. But it’s not—in fact it’s just the beginning.

Talavera is the proud father of a new school in Los Alpes, Nicaragua. This school, overlooking a grassy meadow, the town, and ridge after ridge of mountainous coffee farms, is the reason Talavera does what he does. For him, and the other farmers of Cooperativa 16 de Julio, growing organic coffee is a means to an end: the health and happiness of their community.At times the dream of the new school in Los Alpes must have seemed distant, if not almost impossible. The members of 16 de Julio farm land that was redistributed in the Sandanista revolution of 1979. Through their struggle to defend themselves and their land against Contra raids, the community of Los Alpes was able to maintain their new land, and to coalesce as a cooperative.

Students at the Los Alpes School, 2004.

United by this struggle, the cooperative soon faced new challenges. Formed in the early 90’s HYPROCOOP was a second-level cooperative in the department of Jinotega. HYPROCOOP coordinated the marketing and selling of its members coffee to the Fair Trade market in Europe, guaranteeing stable earnings in a time of widely fluctuating prices. But in 1995, the executive director fled the country with the cooperative’s savings, leaving the individual cooperatives and their members responsible for $720,000 in debt. “We were devastated and shamed.” remembers Talavera.The farmers regrouped and formed SOPPEXXCA in 1997. SOPPEXXCA is a second-level cooperative with over 450 members. It was created to maintain HYPROCOOP’s links to the Fair Trade market, to repay the farmer’s debt, and to facilitate the transition to organic farming. Since then, the 450 families that comprise SOPPEXCA have paid off $400,000 of their debt. But while this has meant foregoing individual earnings for the sake of financing the cooperative, it hasn’t meant foregoing Talavera’s dream of a school in Los Alpes.With SOPPEXXCA’s help, 16 de Julio coordinated grants from international donors, and with this financing, plus contributions from the cooperative, the community built a school.

Back on his farm, Talavera stands proudly in the dirt floored kitchen of his two room house. For eight years, this is where the children came to school. “Now do you want to see my farm?” he asks. Yes. To see Adolfo Talavera’s farm is to see the life’s work of a gifted farmer. It’s a chance to see how organic coffee farmers and their cooperatives are caring for the future health of their land, their communities, and their children. These are the people and places that we – AND YOU – support when we buy and sell Fair Trade and Organic coffee.

Los Alpes is one of six primary communities who together form the SOPPEXCCA Cooperative. You can taste their coffee in our Flor de Jinotega, Nicaragua coffee line.

This story was written in 2004.

New Crop Arrival: Flor de Jinotega, Nicaragua

Flor de Jinotega, Nicaragua

November 2010-January 2011 Harvest

Guadalupe Jesus Picado, SOPPEXCCA Cooperative, Jinotega Nicaragua. 2010.

Nestled in the mountains above the regional capital Jinotega, the farmers of SOPPEXCCA grow coffee under the protective shade of bananas, mangos, and mahogany, and alongside dense forests providing home to dozens of rare orchids and winter habitat for hundreds of migratory songbirds. Jinotega is the heartland of Nicaragua’s coffee producing zone and many of the country’s finest coffees come from the thousands of small-scale family farms arrayed throughout the department’s lush mountain landscape.

This landscape wasn’t always organized this way. Before the revolution of the 1980s many of these small family farms were actually consolidated in expansive haciendas owned by foreigners and the country’s elite and farmed with the intensive use of agrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers themselves were hired labor, invariably poorly paid. In fact, the genesis of the revolution itself traces directly to these large farms, and the thousands of farmers without access to land. One of the central demands and outcomes of the revolution was a process of land redistribution whereby farmers gained access to the land they had worked for generations. Cooperatives arose out of the need to organize these small farms in larger economic unions that could market coffee, facilitate much needed financing, and serve the community’s broad social, economic, and environmental needs.

Though relatively small in membership, SOPPEXCCA has emerged as Jinotega’s leading cooperative. The cooperative represents 654 families and is recognized around the world as a leader in the movement to empower small-scale farmers, especially women and youth. SOPPEXCCA has built primary schools in its member communities, alongside pharmacies, cooperative grocery stores, and technical assistance centers. Extensive micro-credit programs offer members access to financing at a discount of 75% compared to locally available commercial finance. Long-term work to develop sustainable coffee production has resulted in a cooperatively-owned organic fertilizer production facility, innovative climate change adaptation efforts, and of course, ongoing coffee quality improvement programs.

During the harvest, coffee is carefully picked, then depulped and fermented overnight before it is washed and sun-dried. Careful attention to the subtleties of processing and the farmer’s pride produce sweetly floral coffee, with notes of brown sugar and cacao, summer stone fruit, and lingering taste of milk chocolate.


Cooperative SOPPEXCCA · Altitude 1,200 meters ·Region Jinotega •Processing  wet/washed · Varietals bourbon, typica, caturra · Cooperative membership 654

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Bolivia: Mountains, Sweet Coffee, Inspired Cooperatives

I’m just back from a whirlwind week-and-a-half buying trip to Bolivia and Peru. More on Peru later, this first installment is focused on Bolivia…

Latin America’s only landlocked coffee producer faces a lot of challenges that other producing countries just don’t have to deal with. The coffee producing region is separated from shipping ports by mountain passes reaching to nearly 16,000 feet. The Andes are not small mountains. Logic might warn you against producing coffee here, or more personally as it relates to me, traveling to a place where your plane lands at 13,000 above sea level, only to wake up to a ride on the “Camino de Muerte” (The Death Road), a highway clinging to the side of cliffs with vertical drops reaching a mile or more at some points.

But logic, in all of its clear-headed and dispassionate reason doesn’t know how good Bolivian coffee can be. The deep sugary sweetness, complex and elegant acidity, and subtle citric characteristics are more than worth a little adventure. For those of you who know and love our Musasa, Rwanda single origin, the characteristics of that cup are the best comparison I can make. And so it was that I found myself wondering if I’d bought enough ibuprofin to-go at the Miami airport. How bad could the altitude induced headache be? And more than a little excited to taste some great coffee and meet the folks behind Union Pro-Agro and ASOCAFE, two of Bolivia’s most promising  cooperatives.

A little backstory/context…Bolivia has shone in the past few years via the Cup of Excellence, a national competition that winnows the best lots from the year’s harvest, and offers them on an international auction. Small lots of truly exceptional quality emerged from the mass of good, but not great coffee. The disparate nature of the Bolivian industry— thousands and thousands of small scale farmers in near-ideal growing conditions—availed a whole new set of opportunities for differentiated production. Buyers have swarmed, and farmers got bit by the craft bug. Good things. At the same time, there’s a shared sense that Bolivian coffee could be a lot better than it usually is. Small lots came out tasting way better than big lots. The Cup of Excellence is a kind of proof of the potential here. But finding a needle in the haystack is one thing, finding a reliable supply of great coffee is another. The challenge is how to find exceptional coffee, not just in tiny micro-lots, but from farm, next to farm, next to farm, within these emerging cooperatives.

On my first day, before leaving for a six hour (sometimes harrowing) drive to Caranavi I had a chance to cup through dozens of samples from Union Pro Agro, and ASOCAFE. Thanks to the hard work Al Liu at Atlas Coffee Importers (based in Seattle) I have the dream set-up: a contract for 100 bags of the best coffee we can find, to be selected bag-by-bag, and combined into a lot comprised of only the finest coffees. It turns out that this is exactly the kind of contract we want and need. 3/4 of the coffee we cupped did not live up to its potential. Hints of greatness were muted by defects, the most prevalent being poor post-harvest processing, especially the puckering dryness associated with overfermentation. But tucked amidst these disappointments were some gems. And one by one, the good emerged from the bad, and the truly exciting rose to the top. Cupping at this level requires a lot of patience, and while you hope that a great coffee might represent a lot of 10 or 20 bags, its more common that it represents a lot of 3 or 4 bags—the day’s production from a single small farm. Slow as it may be, each discovery is a step in the right direction and a step closer to finding the coffee we need, and the farmers who grow it.

I spent the next two days in the mountains of northeasten Bolivia, walking through farm after farm with farmers, inspecting central washing stations with clean cement fermentation tanks and washing channels, small on-farm mills with wooden tanks and channels; the whole range of good, bad, and ugly from a quality perspective, but absolutely fascinating and exciting from a human perspective. I was fed wild animals that don’t have English names, saw more butterflies than I’ve ever seen before, and met farmer after farmer excited to know that there is a market for their great coffee that will reward the extra work required to produce it with prices that more than justify the extra labor.

Before returning to La Paz on last morning in Caranavi we cupped another few tables of coffee. Again, a lot of coffee that you wouldn’t travel the world for, but a couple that really shone. Atlas has contracted the help of an outstanding young Bolivian cupper, Noemi Apaza, and the three of us left that last cupping clear about what we didn’t want, and more importantly, what we want—both what the taste profile should be, and also, which farmers within the two cooperatives seem to have a handle on how to produce the quality we’re looking for.

Because the harvest is still underway, we’re waiting for the full array of samples available to us. Noemi is preparing a bulk shipment of somewhere between 30 and 50 of the best samples, and from those we’ll be making our selections and arranging our shipment.

I look forward to posting again as we solidify our purchases, and even more so, to the arrival of these fine coffees sometime towards the end of November.

Check out the gallery below for a sense of where this great coffee is coming from.


Comments on Coffeelands Blog

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Michael Sheridan, coordinator of the CAFE Livelihoods project of Catholic Relief Services. Michael lives and works with farmers throughout Mexico and Central America and is a long-time fair trade ambassador, organizer, and farmer advocate. Last fall Michael launched the “Coffeelands Blog” that offers “a view from the field” sharing his insight into the critical issues facing farmers and their communities in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

Michael and I met up at the recent Specialty Coffee Association of America annual conference in Anaheim California to compare notes on our efforts to support farmers as they confront the challenges posed by climate change. He was moved to write a reflection on our conversation, part of which I’ll share here. Please visit his blog for the whole story, and links to other interesting, challenging, and illuminating posts (and some great photos too!)

Thanksgiving was involved in some of the pioneering investments in coffee quality at origin — investments that strengthen the coffee chain and improve the profitability and quality of life of everyone involved.  It has applied that same standard to climate change and is pushing forth into the considerably more uncertain fields of mitigation and adaptation not as charity, but as a way to protect core business processes and current profit margins. Here’s hoping for more hard-headed business decisions like this one in the industry in the months and years to come.


Thanks to Michael and CRS for their ongoing commitment to the farmers of Central America. We’re lucky to have such great allies in this movement. Here’s looking forward to more sharing ideas, strategies, and blog posts too!


Rwanda’s Women

By some estimates over 70 percent of fieldwork and coffee harvesting is done by women. But when it comes to ownership of land or the harvested, marketable coffee, those numbers drop to below 20 percent. Looking at these numbers it would not be an exaggeration to say that women make the coffee trade possible, and it would also be hard not to conclude that deep rooted structures of patriarchy and male-dominance are essentially stealing from women.

The women of COCAGI Cooperative, southwestern Rwanda.

The women of COCAGI Cooperative, southwestern Rwanda.


Those numbers may be a bit different in Rwanda, where many women were widowed by the genocide. Because of that experience, and in part due to the impressive egalitarian nature of Paul Kagame’s national government (highest percentage of women elected officials in the world at nearly 50 percent), women play a relatively more prominent role in Rwanda’s coffee cooperatives and farming communities.

That’s the backdrop to an exciting two-day tour of three cooperatives spread throughout Rwanda who’ve created women’s associations inside the larger cooperative—essentially a cooperative within a cooperative. I had the lucky chance to tag along with Christine Condo, TransfairUSA’s Global Producer Service project manager in Rwanda, and her colleague Ben Schmerler from the Oakland, California office. Through the two days we met with three groups and heard their stories, visions, and questions.

The view from Abakundekawa, northern Rwanda.

The view from Abakundekawa, northern Rwanda.

And in-between I got to contribute to Christine and Ben’s brainstorming around the development of an autonomous Rwanda-led NGO focused on further developing these and other women’s associations inside the country’s network of cooperatives. The idea is taking shape, with development of the structure, funding, and operations over the next year, all to be launched by the first day of 2011. The organization’s work will be tailored to the specific needs and visions of each woman’s association, but the central goals of income diversification, education, health, and microfinance will undoubtedly thread throughout the diverse project portfolio. I’m honored to be a part of the process, and looking forward to bringing Thanksgiving Coffee Company’s history, experience, network, and support to this project. With Christine’s leadership I’m absolutely sure that we’re in store for some impressive results. Ben and I joke (more than half seriously) about visiting Christine at the presidential residence once she gets elected…


Xaverine Nyerabare, Abakundekawa Cooperative.

Until then, and until I have a chance to share more of this exciting development with you here’s a quote from Xaverine Nyerabare that pretty much sums it up.

“You should be our ambassador. Women from here have the dream of expanding our farms. We live far from our washing station, it’s a long walk from our farms. If we had financing we could build one closer to our homes, increase our profits and improve our quality.”

Here’s to the women of Rwanda, and the hard work they do every day to build better tomorrows.

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