Sustainable cocoa and coffee

Women, coffee, and entrepreneurial resistance in the Intag valley

January 27, 2021
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Economic autonomy and the well-being of the family are two of the engines for Alba Mejía, 43, a native in the canton of Intag. She has not stopped planting Arabica coffee since she started about 15 years ago. "It is necessary to clean the land and prepare for sowing, (...) the harvest depends on the climatic conditions and the care we give to avoid pests and plant diseases," she tells Rikolto.

Producing and selling quality coffee is a something Alba is proud of, and she puts a lot of efforts in this. Equally important to her is belonging to an association that motivates her to improve and that helps her in commercialising her product. That is why she joined the Agricultural Artisan Association of Coffee Growers by the Intag River (AACRI), one of the oldest coffee organisations in the country and a Rikolto partner in this excellent coffee producing area.

The association is committed to an inclusive development where coffee growers like Alba add value to the coffee chain. To generate additional income, she and a group of women weave the cabuya covers that accompany the traditional AACRI coffee, aimed at the domestic market. What does this undertaking mean for her and for the association's development model?

Living off coffee: a challenge for coffee-growing families in Ecuador

For many farming families, making a living from coffee in this Ecuador is challenging. The crop has one of the highest production costs in Latin America, due to the dollarisation in the country.

This situation, topped off with the patience and care that the coffee plant requires, as well as the investment time it requires (it can take up to three years to harvest from the plant), leads to some producers choosing faster-yielding crops and excluding options like organic farming (which requires even more care). Others choose to dedicate themselves to complementary productive activities in the area, says Ramiro Fuertes, administrator of AACRI. For him, it is not a matter of choice: organic farming products have added value.

“Sometimes organic farming is seen as a cost, not an investment. In addition to ensuring that it is continuous, it must be recognised that it has added value. That is why we have also focused on internal consumption. If there is no profit, the farmer is discouraged."

Ramiro Fuertes

AACRI Administrator

Coffee and resistance to mining in Intag

The coffee farm of Alba and her parents is located in the parish of Peñaherrera, in Cotacachi, and is targeted on the maps of the mining concession. “Some farmers have already sold their farms, I don't think there will be a greater profit; the mining company here does not bring us any benefit. I will continue working my land and producing coffee, that's what I like to do.”

Alba has seen that mining has divided families in the community, but has also motivated youth and women to develop environmentally sustainable alternatives for activities in the area. Examples of this are ecotourism, handicrafts and organic agricultural production; areas that AACRI also seeks to promote with families.

Alba and her family, like many producers, have other crops on their farm: "We have three hectares of coffee on the farm, but we also plant a little corn, beans, bananas, and we have fruit trees." Despite this, she identifies with coffee. For her, planting it equals saving the Intag Valley. The reason she wants to save it? This area in the north of Ecuador, valued for the benefits of its soil, is on the radar of copper mining companies.

For Alba, planting and maintaining coffee is a passion and an act of resistance. But to preserve her way of life and family tradition today she must think beyond the cultivation itself

Productive activities such as handicrafts allow Alba to take economic control of her home since the farm and her parents' livelihood depends on her. In order to continue growing her crop of choice in a mining area and earn a decent income, she discovered that she had to start participating in other activities in the chain, adding value to the products of her association. She found a profitable activity in cabuya weaving, an activity she shares with other women.

Coffee and cabuya: uniting the women of Aacri

Cabuya covers are eco-friendly wraps that today bring together the women of the association and revive their interest in traditional techniques

When we contacted Alba for her interview, it was November, a time when the strongest efforts of the coffee calendar in the countryside have peaked. Nevertheless, commercialising efforts continue to the point that a new product line for local markets is being analysed. Before the next harvest, a group of 12 women, including Alba, coordinate the weaving of the cabuya covers that accompany the coffee of their association as a signature packaging for “café de mujeres”, coffee produced by women.

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The covers are simple in their concept, but they have contributed to creating an exclusive coffee, with high added value that has earned a special place among local buyers because they identify that acquiring an AACRI product benefits the women of the valley. Alba and her colleagues participated in the workshops that Rikolto and AACRI promoted to improve the quality and presentation of the product. The project provided them with special looms so that they could easily weave the rough fibre.

“Weaving, spinning, and dyeing the cabuya to make the coffee covers is a good experience, we get together with our colleagues, we share, and we support each other. Knitting the covers has become an excuse to get together. "

Alba Mejía

Partner of AACRI

The venture allowed women to obtain an additional income that provided stability in a season disrupted by Covid-19. But for Aacri, the contribution goes further: it helps them to have a more inclusive organisation and business.

The cabuya covers are woven according to the demand by the association. Up to 1,000 units can be ordered in a week, to make sure the workload is always divided equally. The fabric is made by women in the afternoons and evenings, and the cost depends on whether the wraps are decorated or coloured, which would make the price higher.

Today Alba and her colleagues are adapting to new ways of working. Shortly before the arrival of the pandemic, with support from Rikolto, they also benefited from training in good manufacturing practices and good agricultural

practices. "Among the topics there was one that prepared us for the emergency," she highlights. To prevent the spread of Covid-19 cases in the area, the project gave the women biosecurity kits and organised a workshop on good agricultural practices and safety that addressed the issue of biosecurity on the farm with personnel and at home with family.

Women and coffee: a match in which the chain wins

Aacri works with each link in the chain: from the making of sackcloth bags, to the production and promotion of coffee (cupping and barista) as well as activities with coffee by-products (jewelry) and coffee liqueurs.

With Rikolto's support, AACRI seeks to include more women and young people in the coffee value chain, with training and technical support. "It has allowed us to generate more identity, loyalty to the organisation, and better articulation between all members", Ramiro explains.

The association thinks about the future of the coffee business beyond production, and for that reason the inclusion of women and young people means an opportunity to “meet local expectations, respond better to them so that the organisational vision represents everyone”. Rikolto's programme adds value to the work of coffee-growing communities in Intag, counting on women, whose work makes the chain more resistant and infiltrates Ecuadorian coffee with an aroma of hope.

Rikolto encourages the inclusion of women and youth in the coffee value chain in Ecuador. In these times of pandemic, we have trained more than 200 workers and farmers on biosecurity protocols, on issues related to harvest and post-harvest. We provided 480 farmers and their families with equipment and supplies to face the new normal on their farms and in their homes.

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