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Karen Cebreros: Reshaping the Coffee Industry for Women

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As CEO of Earth’s Choice, Karen Cebreros’ focus has turned from being an early pioneer of organic, fairly traded coffee to being a pioneer of Women in Coffee. In recent years, Cebreros has come to the conclusion that fair trade is not doing enough at a measurable scale to ease the poverty experienced across the world in coffee growing regions.

More importantly, she surmises, maybe it isn’t about paying a fair price for coffee at a microeconomic level, as it is about who receives that fair price. With this in mind, she decided to see what would happen if microloans to grow coffee were given to women instead of men.

What she found was that the loans were paid back on time and in full. In addition, the children were fed, clothed and schooled and in some cases the women were resourceful enough to create employment for their husbands.

Cebreros shared a story of a woman who bought her husband a pair of scissors and set him up as a community barber. The reality in many of these countries is men spend money on drink, gambling, or mistresses — diverting income away from education, clothing, and food for their families.

Financing women is not without its challenges, however.

Giving microloans to women to grow their own coffee is a radical idea. This is not just because of cultural norms where it is not acceptable for women to control their own finances or that of the household, but also because of governmental barriers and laws that are not favorable or do not allow women to own their own property on which to grow coffee or any commodity.

Despite these challenges, a light turned on for Cebreros:

Cebreros experienced this first hand in the early days of pioneering organic, fairly traded coffee. She talked to numerous men in the coffee industry about the abject poverty faced by farming families pre-fair trade.

She would offer to take them to origin, and in some cases this would move them to action, but the real momentum for change came only after she spoke with the women at the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association) and took them on a trip to origin.

Out of that trip was born the International Women’s Coffee Association whose mission it is to “empower women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives; and to encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry.”

Despite Cebreros’s efforts pioneering fair trade and all the IWCA has accomplished, to this day, farmers face 5-8 months a year commonly referred to as “The lean months.”

These are the months where the coffee is growing. Farmer’s do not get paid until the coffee is delivered to the warehouse, so during these months many families that do not have alternative crops or farms that provide them food, literally starve. Often times, the men will leave despite being needed for the crucial growing months, sacrificing crop loss during harvest for labor in the cities in order to feed themselves and their families.

If fair trade has not been the vehicle for driving income up and farming families out of poverty, then in Cebreros’s mind, after over 10 years at it, the time is ripe to try something new. She is successfully doing micro-finance for women in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, and is now focusing her attention on a small cooperative near Chiapas, Mexico called GRAPOS.

Located at the base of Takana Volcano, a mountain that sits halfway in Mexico and halfway in Guatemala, GRAPOS stands for “Group of accessors for the production of sustainable, organic coffee.” Five hundred of the 2600 farmers participating are women. Two of these women hold administrative positions as secretary and treasurer.

In addition to traditional organic farming practices, each parcel must be open to visits by the administration and comply willingly with all the rules of GRAPOS. One of these rules is that children of the producers must attend school.

This century will be remembered not for conflicts or technical inventions, but as a time in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.
Arnold Toynbee
One of the reasons so many women in this cooperative are producers is a recent change in law. For the first time, the Mexican government has allowed land grants for women, giving them the right to hold legal title to the lands on which they grow their coffee crops.

Cebreros is maximizing on this change by incentivizing women growers with micro-finance loans using the Grameen Model. This model of micro-finance utilizes the collective responsibility of the group — in this case the women farmers — as collateral on the loan.

Instead of loaning to all 500 women at GRAPOS, a few will be identified and given loans. They are reviewed for compliance with the rules of the bank. If the few meet their obligations of principle and interest, then more members become eligible for financing, creating peer pressure to repay in the “interest” of the group as a whole.

So far, Cebreros reports a 100 percent repay rate.

Despite the learning curve of entering the world of micro-finance, Karen Cebreros is bringing the first ever Women’s Organic Decaf coffee to market in the U.S. She hopes to boost San Diego’s reputation for being what she has always referred to as the “Conscious Corner of Coffee” in the specialty coffee world by being the first to bring this all women-sourced organic decaf to local roasters.

She was the first to source organic and fair trade coffee for sale to roasters in the US, so it won’t be the first time she’s been successful at bringing the next advent in conscious coffee to market.

Karen Cebreros has been a founding member of the International Women’s Coffee Association for over 10 years, a member of the Organic Trade Association for 22 years, with Women In Business for 20 years, Rotary for 4 years, founder of the Sustainability Committee 4 years, and has been at the SCAA Coffee Quality Institute for 18 years.

Cebreros is currently working with Profits For Purpose promoting a CRM tool in the cloud connecting, coffee-centric Coffee Cares, where industry professionals and their communities can track their impact locally, globally, and in real dollars. Cebreros remains active on the political front for women locally, most recently being 1 of 4 local business women to organize the movement to get former Mayor Bob Filner to resign.

Photo Credit: Trish Rothgeb / Flickr

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