JavaU’s Interview with Karen Cebreros

Gender Equity and Access to Credit for Women Coffee Producers

CoffeeTalk Media and JavaU were honored to host Karen Cebreros, Founder and CEO of Elan Organic Coffees, Earth’s Choice Organic and a Sustainable Trader with Global Coffee Trading as our Subject Matter Expert for our webinar on Gender Equity and Microfinancing for Women in Coffee. Karen is also a cofounder of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). The question and answer portion between Producer Shane Gillispie and Ms. Cebreros appears below. The entire presentation can be viewed at 

Q: How many chapters are involved in IWCA?

A: There are 22 active chapters. Each country has to go through the same steps that we did here in the United States and file for their own non-profit status which, in some countries, was almost insurmountable, particularly Ethiopia. But, every single chapter, in order to become an active member of the global movement, has to have their own non-profit status. And we have bylaws, if somebody needs to see bylaws, we can email those out.

Q: What other countries are you looking to start projects in?

A: I really want to start five countries at one time if we have the right partners. Basically, bottom line, the right Rotary clubs on the ground and groups like Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung to collaborate. But, World Vision said “We don’t know who the heck you are. Let’s see how we do in Honduras, and if you do well, we’ll approach two or three at the same time.” Having said that, probably, if we get the go ahead, we’ll jump over to Africa. I can not specify the country. Needless to say, we did workshops in Puebla at the Global Conference. Standing room only, everyone stayed until the end, everybody would like to have access to credit. So, it’s not going to be my call necessarily but I do think it would be great to get some models going in the African area. And then, of course, the Philippines and Indonesia, they want it too. China too, everybody wants it.

Q: What’s been the greatest challenge in getting women coffee farmers involved in microfinance?

A: Fear. They’re just afraid to commit to taking something that they’ve never, ever had. Fear and confidence. But, at the end, the fact they want to feed their families always wins out.

Q: How do you know which Rotary clubs are the right ones and then, and is there some sort of an instruction sheet on how someone might be able to approach a Rotary?

A: That is the giant elephant in the room. Everybody says they want to do it, they want the money, they want to help you, and that is not the case. We have started down a path and been into it, I’m going to say, up to two years in some of these partnerships where the Rotary club at origin does fall away for a variety of reasons. Maybe they lost the champion within the club. Sometimes they were only interested in managing the money themselves which they cannot do; it has to go through a third party. Just different things happen. So, vetting the Rotary club is critical. What I’ve found works really well is to get recommendations from the district governor and in the case of Central America, I just happened to know the district governor through other work with Wakami, an amazing NGO. And if you don’t turn in your reports when they’re due, all money shuts down. Rotary International’s not messing around anymore. You have to dot every I and cross every T. But, they just launched a new global grant process which is going to be, I’m going to say, a hundred times easier than in the past. You do have to make friends with the people who pull the strings on the money though. Both in country and in our country. You’ve got to go to a Rotary meeting and see if somebody in that club is interested in the project. That’s what you have to do in your neighborhood. Rotary, on a global landscape, is looking for new ways to partner and I think feeding people and peace are the two things they’re looking at.

Q: What else as a coffee industry, just the coffee industry in general and everyone in it, what could we be doing to address the poverty in the origin countries?

A: First of all, I think we should ask the ICO to get data collected. People that donated a lot of money, in the millions, want data. How many women work in coffee in each of these countries? I don’t think that’s a lot to ask for the ICO to ask each country. Can they roll up some figures so we can present some appropriate information relative to global grants to whoever is funding projects that we need to work on? We need to feed people. The industry is what? One of the third most powerful industries in the world next to, I’m going to say guns, arms, and liquor. But, everybody likes to compare us to oil. Well, they’re both very dirty industries but we have the power to change the way we live on this planet. And, I have to put in a plug for organic because that’s my thing. When I started in organic in ’89, back then, organic people were saying the planet is… 50% of the pollution on the planet is caused by agriculture, and within the agriculture, it’s coffee, tobacco, and cotton are the most heavily polluted products on the planet. We have to stop chopping the rainforest down, polluting the planet. I mean, in Chiapas, we had our first organic coffee conference, I believe this is in ’86, and a farmer said, an indigenous farmer people are interviewing and saying, “Why are you going back to organic?” He goes, “Because our soils are tired, our waters are polluted. Oh, and by the way, our kids are sick and dying and the fish are gone. We have to. It’s not a choice.” I don’t know if it’s too late. Let’s be optimistic. Give women the tools to farm in harmony with nature.

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