Coffee—the world’s second-most traded commodity after crude oil—is the source of livelihood for millions of people around the globe through its cultivation, harvesting, processing and trading. Though industrialized nations consume the bulk of coffee, 90% of it is produced in developing countries where females make up the majority of the coffee labor force. Ripe coffee cherries are harvested manually. According to the International Trade Forum, women do at least 70% of the harvesting and sorting. It takes approximately 3,200 beans to constitute a single pound of coffee for which the picker can be paid as little as 14¢, according to some industry figures.
Women play an undisputable role in the health, vibrancy and sustainability of coffee production. Yet, these same women are among the last in the world to gain access to basic health screening services that can keep them healthy and productive members of their communities. For instance, when a woman in a coffee-growing community dies from cervical cancer—as nearly 200,000 do each year—it is not only a human tragedy, but also bad for business. Moreover, the lasting negative impact in terms of education, health and lost opportunity on the next generation of would-be coffee farmers is incalculable.
Since 1996, the coffee industry (most notably the specialty coffee industry) has been supporting the work of Grounds for Health to create sustainable cervical cancer prevention programs in coffee-growing communities. Cervical cancer, the number one cause of cancer death for women throughout the developing world, is preventable, treatable and curable. Yet, every two minutes a woman dies somewhere in the world, often because she lacks basic access to routine screening.
To date, Grounds for Health has trained 500 community health promoters to educate and recruit women to be screened for cervical cancer. The non-profit has taught 270 doctors and nurses how to conduct a low-cost yet highly effective screening protocol to detect pre-cancer of the cervix and to treat women who test positive. This “screen and treat” technique, recognized by the World Health Organization as a “best buy” in international public health, can be done even in the most remote settings. Through Grounds for Health programs, more than 40,000 women have been screened. These local doctors and nurses will continue to provide services throughout their careers in the communities where they work and live, making the program truly sustainable. When women need treatment, they get it. When they are shown to have advanced cancer needing more aggressive treatment, they are referred for more care.
Coffee companies have recognized these results and intuitively understand both the humanitarian and business incentives of safeguarding the health of women as an integral part of the coffee value chain. What may be less understood is the global impact that supporting Grounds for Health and other coffee non-profits has had and continues to have. Grounds for Health’s work, for example—which is only made possible by coffee support—has been recognized for its impact on addressing a major global health problem. The organization’s approach of only going where invited and then incorporating community mobilization as a critical element to long-term, local program sustainability has gained traction in the international health community. In 2011, the World Health Organization asked Executive Director August Burns to join a seven-person Technical Advisory Group on Cervical Cancer Prevention. This group is literally re-writing international guidelines for reducing the burden of this global public health problem, taking into account the necessity of a “ground up” approach. Grounds for Health has also been invited by the Global Health Council, the Pan American Health Organization and the Federation of International Gynecology and Obstetrics (among others) to present its model as an example of a public/private partnership that is making a measurable difference. One example of the effectiveness of the community-centered approach is that the government of Tanzania has now adapted Grounds for Health training protocols and materials for its national programs.
Coffee companies have proven themselves to be incredibly philanthropic and truly concerned with the welfare of the people who produce their product. When coffee companies open their checkbooks to support a variety of coffee-based charities, they do it for their own altruistic reasons. The fact that these generous impulses also have positive long-term ramifications worldwide—not just in the world of coffee—is a benefit few could have foreseen.
Jane S. Dale is Development Director for Grounds for Health. Previously, she held the position of a Vice-President for Cone, Inc. This Boston-based cause-marketing firm helps align the philanthropy of Fortune 500 companies with their business objectives through targeted financial support of non-profits and social cause.