On our recent trip to Nicaragua, we had the pleasure of meeting with a worker cooperative in the coffee-growing region of Matagalpa. This is a unique group: an all-women’s cooperative of workers at a progressive and well-respected coffee cooperative called SOPPEXCCA.
The co-op is comprised of women who work at SOPPEXCCA’s ‘dry mill’, where coffee is dried, sorted and prepared for export. They play an important but often forgotten role in the process of bringing coffee from the farm to your cup.
During the harvest, coffee arrives at the mill from the farms in ‘parchment’ form (the green bean, which is what we roast, is still covered by a parchment-like shell) and spread out to dry over concrete patios spanning acres in size. The women of the workers’ cooperative turn the coffee every few hours with large wooden rakes to ensure that it dries evenly. They also work the machine that husks the parchment away and sorts the coffee into the export quality beans that arrive at our loading dock many thousands of miles away.
The workers in the dry mill could be considered the most marginalized in the fair trade supply chain because their work is seasonal, manual labor. SOPPEXCCA saw things differently however, and with tremendous recognition of their workers decided to help the women at the dry mill form a worker’s cooperative in 2010. They received support from progressive coffee buyers and our partner in Nicaragua, Etico, through the Recognition of the Unpaid Work of Women, an initiative pioneered at Juan Fransisco Paz Silva, another cooperative in Nicaragua that we have written about.
As an organized worker’s cooperative, the women have since collaborated with SOPPEXCCA to improve working conditions, increase job security, and organize capacity building workshops in self-esteem and other topics. They also opened and manage a store on the premises, where members can buy staples at wholesale rates. The fruits of their labor offer an example of the power of organized activity.
The day of our visit happened to fall on International Women’s Day and we celebrated with cake before beginning our meeting. It was an important one for the co-op: they are coming into the ‘silent months’ and hope to finalize a business idea into a concrete plan. The ‘silent months’ are when the mill shuts down for the season, a 3-4 month period before the new harvest starts up again. Many of the women have expressed the desire to work during this time, and they are using their co-op as a platform to do so.
The idea the women were formalizing at this meeting involves a baking operation: making cookies at a central kitchen at the dry mill and selling them in their communities. Sesame seeds will come from Juan Fransisco Paz Silva, deepening the connection between these cooperatives.
After the meeting with the women’s cooperative, we cupped a few batches of excellent coffee from SOPPEXCCA and chose one to bring home as a micro lot. Included in the cost of this coffee will be an amount to recognize the unpaid work of women, which will directly support the efforts of the worker’s cooperative. Stay tuned for a small batch of this coffee from SOPPEXCCA in the coming months.