Healthy Farmers are at the Root of Sustainability

Grounds for healthBy Pam Kahl, Grounds For Health

In the coffee industry, more often than not sustainability means investing in programs that maximize yield, improve quality, and protect against disease. Rough estimates suggest major roasters have collectively invested sums of $25-$30 million in multi-year projects from Guatemala to Indonesia and everywhere in between. Capacity building programs educate farmers on new techniques and products so they can grow robust coffee trees.

Richer soil . . . stronger plants . . . more and better coffee. It’s all about the health and fitness of the coffee tree.

But a coffee plant is only as productive as the farmer who cares for it. And in order for that farmer to nurture healthy coffee trees, s/he must be healthy and have access to services that make it possible to live a long and productive life.

The human dimension is particularly poignant as the coffee industry takes a more deliberate look at gender equity issues at origin. Root Capital’s brief, published last fall, advocates for a collaborative approach to “unlocking the economic potential of women by expanding the focus beyond women leaders to include women from across the economic spectrum.” The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has launched a collaborative research initiative to explore the link between coffee and gender to encourage innovation. In both cases, the emphasis is on women’s economic empowerment as a catalyst for greater supply chain resiliency.

Women at origin who are in the best position to influence the future of the supply chain are in their prime, between 30 and 50 years old. These women are not just farmers, accountants, managers, or pickers. They are also mothers, wives, aunts, and daughters who play a critical role in the social and economic fabric of their communities.

Unfortunately, low-income women in rural areas of developing countries—where coffee is produced—face a range of health problems. Multi-billion dollar efforts to improve health in these settings tend to focus on children and the main infectious diseases such as HIV and malaria, leaving women under-served. For example, cervical cancer now kills more women than childbirth, and yet is almost completely neglected. In the next 15 years, six million women are expected to die from cervical cancer, an easily preventable disease. Nearly 90 percent of these deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries.

The point is that investing in economic empowerment programs alone for women (or men for that matter) will not guarantee more stable coffee-growing communities. The coffee industry also must recognize the compounded benefits to investing in social infrastructure such as health, education, and childcare.

Michael Sheridan of Catholic Relief Services notes that 2015 is “shaping up to be the year of gender equity in specialty coffee,” which creates enormous opportunity for smart conversations and innovative thinking.

Let’s remember that before all else, influential, productive, and economically empowered women are…healthy women.

Pam Kahl is VP of Development & Communications at Grounds for Health.