13 March 2018

Women in the Lead

Written by Published in Good Brands
Kerttu Inkeroinen, Marketing Director, Union Coffee, with women from the Maraba Co-Operative, Rwanda Kerttu Inkeroinen, Marketing Director, Union Coffee, with women from the Maraba Co-Operative, Rwanda

On International Women's Day, coffee roaster brand Union leads us to reflect on the women behind the coffee

liana Martinez, General manager of the Esquipulas Coffee Co-Operative in Guatemala, believes the role of women in the coffee industry is changing.

‘Latin America is considered the cradle of machismo. When I first started working in the industry, the majority of managers in Guatemala were men. It was rare to see women working in the field, receive payment or recognition for their work’, she says.

Today, women in the cooperative are recognised and receive payment. Under Iliana’s leadership, the co-operative has grown and today it exports coffee from more than 200 members, of which 25% are female, to the UK, Japan and Italy. 

And Iliana is not the only one. Around the world, there is a rising trend for women driving coffee production forward.

Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, the leading speciality coffee roaster based in East London, has noticed this trend and is working to help facilitate this change. Ensuring women’s access to equal ownership and employment conditions, the compay is working hard to empower women at all levels of the supply chain, all the way from seed to cup.

Union links sustainable best practice with the quality of the coffee through its Union Direct Trade model. The cooperatives it works with in Rwanda, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Ethiopia all have women in senior leadership positions, from managers to female cuppers (coffee tasters). Working closely with suppliers, Union visits origin countries several times a year to build strong, open relationships and ensure its strict standards are being met.

Violeta Stevens, Managing Director, says:

‘In many developing countries we work with, there has historically been a gender divide and over the years we have worked hard to empower female producers by encouraging them to start their own microbusinesses and have a say in their communities, providing training and enabling their children to go to school. It is great to see women becoming more empowered, and we hope this trend will continue.’

Rwanda – Supporting female producers

In Rwanda, Union supports the Maraba and COCAGI cooperatives, where more than 30% of members are women. Accessing formal training can be hard, however, as a result of this support, income for coffee farmers has tripled. To celebrate International Women’s Day, Union has developed a new microlot coffee, Cocagi Kivu, produced exclusively by 42 women in the region.  By providing equal opportunities, Union has enabled women in the region to use the money to start a small business, send their children to school and pay their children’s health insurance.

Guatemala – Bee project

In Guatemala, one of Union’s initiatives, the Guatemala bee project, encourages single mothers to start their own microbusinesses and improve self-sufficiency through introducing bee farming on the coffee farms (bees play a significant role in coffee pollination). This not only empowers women, but it also allows for additional income, improved autonomy and financial stability. 

UK – Women in leadership

In the UK, gender equity is also firmly embedded across all levels of the business. Nearly 40% of Union’s employees are women, ranging from the Head of Coffee Education at Campus and SCA UK Education Coordinator, Edita Chodarcevic, to its Marketing Director Kerttu Inkeroinen, to its new Managing Director Violeta Stevens.

Leading The Way – Women in Coffee



Iliana Martinez, General Manager, Esquipulas Cooperative, Guatemala

‘My brother and I loved harvesting coffee, we were always looking for a lucky ‘cuache’ bean (a twin bean). We would harvest and harvest, going from tree to tree looking for that one lucky bean. We loved picking coffee, because a good harvest meant our father could buy vegetables for the family and we would receive school supplies.’

‘I later moved on and studied to become a teacher. When I was 21, I returned to Huehuetenango from university to work on a local project. Coffee was the most logical choice. We started a project, which included 18 municipalities, 300 samples and an in-depth study looking at coffee quality in the region. With this information we started the Slow Food Project (with the help of the Italian Development Cooperation). The study found that the region and our coffee was eligible for ‘’Presidium Slow Food’’ - a special recognition.’

‘Whilst working on these projects I learned a lot from my colleagues and acquired a lot of experience – but I still didn’t fully understand the potential coffee had for our community until I met Steven, one of the founders of Union, and Pascale, who helped us determine the cost of production. The support of Union has helped us follow our own path with the Esquipulas collective. Today we are exporting the coffee from more than 200 smallholders, and our coffee is enjoyed in the UK, Japan and Italy.’



Venantia Mukakalisa, Member of the Maraba Cooperative, Rwanda

‘Back when I first joined the Maraba Cooperative, there weren’t as many women in our Cooperative and we didn’t realise the importance of producing quality coffee. With Union’s support, there are more women now and we produce better coffee, making a significant difference to our lives’, she explains.

Widowed in the Rwandan genocide, Venantia took over the family coffee farm and started to focus on growing high-quality coffee in order to support her young children. In rural Rwanda, coffee is often the only cash crop for the families. Venantia was featured as ‘the face of Rwandan coffee growers’ in Union’s packaging in 2002 when the first Rwandan speciality coffee was launched. She has worked with Union ever since, having transformed her family’s financial situation through coffee, and Union has also supported her son through university.



Pascale Schuit, Coffee Sourcing and Sustainable Relationship Manager, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

‘Visiting origin countries is a real eye opener. There are still challenges to overcome but it is great to see so many women on the boards of cooperatives we work with. Historically this hasn’t always been the case and we are hoping this positive trend will continue!’

Born in Holland Pascale, 29, came to Union, in her words ‘by accident’. Whilst studying for her MSc in International Development Studies at Wageningen University (the Netherlands), the then 22-year-old along with fellow students developed a monitoring and evaluation system for Union’s Direct Trade System.

Pascale’s role encompasses many areas of farming, trading and people. Her grounding from her MSc has been essential for fully understanding the socio-economic environments, human rights and international development aspects of the job.  On a day to day basis, Pascale is responsible for farm visits – advising on and monitoring management practices, negotiating volumes and prices and assessing buying conditions with farmers as well as quality control at all of the farms by ‘cupping’ (the art of coffee tasting) at origin. 

So, are women the future of the coffee industry? ‘It is important to generate programmes that recognise the work of women in coffee and we have prepared a gender strategy to do just that’, explains Iliana. ‘But there is still a long way to go and changing traditional perspectives is definitely the first step.’


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