Shuswap Coffee Company in Salmon Arm looks like any other small business housed in a non-descript industrial mall. But behind their doors is a remarkable story. Seventy-five per cent of the coffee beans they use are grown exclusively by women in the poorest regions of the coffee growing world. But as impoverished as these growers are, they are giving back to women right here in the Valley.

While coffee co-operatives selling their beans at fair trade and organic premiums have improved the wages of participating farmers, women rarely see the benefits. Before 2004, this was the case in a remote area of Peru until a group of women developed a plan to separate their beans and sell them for two cents per pound above the fair trade organic price and the Café Femenino project was born.

Joanne Sargent, one of the original owners of Shuswap Coffee, was invited to Peru to see where her Café Femenino beans originated and to be part of a documentary called Strong Coffee: The Story of Café Femenino. While there, she attended a meeting of women growers in the third year of the program. “I couldn’t understand a word, but I knew something was happening here. It was the women having the courage to try and to say, ‘We want to do this and we want to have some money so we can make a difference.’”

And what a difference they’ve made. If anything happens to their husbands, these women now have official title to their land. With the help of non-governmental organizations and the Organic Products Trading Company that brokers their coffee in North America, Australia and the UK, the women have access to low interest loans and guaranteed buyers. Additional education and training is available to all farmers, both women and men. The growers have put money into children’s education, infrastructure, crop diversification and living conditions, benefits for everyone in the community.  But the Café Femenino project looks beyond their own families and villages. These women wanted to make sure the sales of their beans would help women in all parts of the world.

Buyers like Shuswap Coffee Company commit twelve-and-a-half cents per pound of Café Femenino beans to a Pay it Forward fund for women’s causes. Vernon and District Women’s Centre, Shuswap Area Family Emergency Society, Shuswap Hospital, Grandmas for Grandmas (Stephen Lewis Foundation) and the Salvation Army have all benefited from the company’s donations over the years. Some of their pay it forward money can also be given to the Café Femenino Foundation, which funds women’s projects in nine coffee producing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In addition to the donations to which Shuswap Coffee Company commits, current owners, Greg and Tara Shantz also provide specially labelled bags of Café Femenino at wholesale prices to several women’s centres. Some centres resell the coffee on location or at special events. Some ask locally owned cafés, retailers and large food chains to sell it on their behalf. These businesses donate their space and services, not profiting from the sales. Four dollars per pound comes back to the organizations to support their work in the community. Centres in Vernon, Kelowna, Grand Forks and Nelson raise funds using Café Femenino.

That the sale of the Peruvian women’s coffee beans should assist women as far away as the Okanagan, Shuswap and Kootenays is extraordinary. As Joanne says, “They’re the ones that need the help, yet they still thought they could help people around the world.”

Story and photo by Suzanne Harper