THE BLOG
01/14/2015 02:37 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Women in Coffee

Frans Lemmens via Getty Images

I feel like we're coming off of 2014 being the "Almost Year of the Woman." Janet Yellen became the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve. Admiral Michelle Howard became the Navy's first female four-star officer. Megan Smith became the first female Chief Technology Officer of the United States. Mo'ne Davis became the first girl to pitch a winning game in the Little League World Series. And after the 2014 elections, it's now the first time 100 votes in congress will be cast by women.

And yet.

A plethora of articles and studies over the last year have highlighted that we haven't come as far as we think. In the film industry the employment of female directors is essentially the same as it was 20 years ago. According to a recent study from the Geena Davis Institute, "less than one third of all speaking characters in film are female" and, overall, Geena Davis says, "females are largely absent from powerful positions. Women represent less than 15 percent of business executives, political figures, or science, technology, engineering, and/or math (STEM) employees." And we still have a significant gender pay gap in most fields.

And yet, we are making progress.

Now let's talk about something more specific that you probably haven't read about: women in coffee. There are 125 million people worldwide that rely on coffee for their income. Did you know that 70% of the field and harvest work worldwide is done by women? But only 15% of women are in leadership positions i.e. owning the coffee, land, or serving as exporters or transporters.

What happens when women acquire the tools to grow better coffee, negotiate prices, or in some cases, build their own coffee mill? Well, they typically reinvest 90% of their income in the families and their communities, sometimes transforming whole villages at a time. I had the privilege of getting to know a wonderful group of women who did just this while I was making a documentary called A Small Section of the World. The women are from the Biolley area in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica, and they formed a coffee association called ASOMOBI (Asociación de Mujeres Organizadas de Biolley).

In the nineties there was a coffee crisis, and the price of coffee fell below what it cost to grow it, so the farmers in the Biolley area abandoned their coffee fields. Most of the men left the village in search of work. They went to the capitol city, San Jose, as well as other countries to find work. The women remained in the village with their kids and wondered what they should do. There still exists quite a bit of machismo in Costa Rica, especially in rural areas, and many of these women were not college educated nor did they really leave their homes much without their husbands. As one of the early President's of ASOMOBI, Hortencia, put it, her husband would come home and say, "Here it is." And that pretty much applied to everything.

So a group of the women got together and said, hey, what if we could encourage farmers to grow higher quality coffee and instead of shipping it off to a coffee mill in another town, what if we built a mill here and processed the specialty coffee ourselves? Since they all grew up around coffee and knew a little about it from planting and picking it, they felt somehow they could just figure out how to mill and roast coffee.

In the beginning, it didn't go well. They started with a small roaster and immediately burnt all the coffee. When they sorted that out they went to sell the roasted coffee, but no one in the area had any money to buy it. So "buyers" just wanted to barter and give them more un-roasted coffee instead in exchange. That wasn't really the idea. So the women knocked on doors and reached out to banks and various associations and eventually got enough money to build a small micro coffee mill on top of a hill. The next year they processed the coffee through the mill and dried it, and then contacted the only female coffee exporter in Costa Rica, Grace Mena. She tried their coffee and immediately said, "this is terrible!" She didn't even return their call. It turned out that it hadn't been dried properly and it was full of mold. So ASOMOBI had to throw out an entire season of work.

But they kept calling and calling Grace and telling her that they wanted to learn. So finally Grace gave in and travelled the five hours from San Jose to Biolley to see the women. Grace was impressed that they had managed to raise the money to build a coffee mill out in the middle of nowhere. So she said to them that if they really, really wanted to learn, she was holding a class in San Jose and she would teach them.

Five of the women showed up at Grace's office and sat in the front row and took notes. They asked questions of everyone and were not afraid to keep calling Grace. The next season they sent Grace a sample batch of their coffee. And something wonderful finally happened. Not only was the coffee good, it was of a high enough quality that Grace was able to sell it to illycaffè in Italy.

And ASOMOBI has been selling their coffee to illycaffè ever since. The roads in the village are nicer, the homes are better, the school is painted and there is a small clinic nearby. Most of the men have returned to the village and work at ASOMOBI, or farm the land, or help in some of the jobs that have been created by the tourists that come to visit. And in less than one generation, these women are able to send their kids to college. Two of the girls who were adolescents when the project began have returned from college and now work at ASOMOBI, fulfilling what they say has been their dream.

It's not all espressos and lattes though. Coffee is complicated. And it's risky. The harvest is only four or five months long, and I learned that in most cases, you can't survive off coffee alone. And yet it's this catalyst for so many other things. You can grow complementary crops on the land nearby. The bees that fertilize the crops also provide honey which can be sold. Tourists come to see a micro mill and they need places to stay and food to eat. Yet one season of drought, or a frost (both recently happened in Brazil sending world wide coffee prices skyward), can make the price of coffee highly volatile. There are also complications from global warming and disease. In ASOMOBI's case, they had a fire in 2012 that completely burnt down their tourist lodge, where 60% of their income was generated. They are still trying to recover from this as they raise funds to rebuild.

I have learned a lot from these women. In fact, when I saw them recently several of them tried out sentences on me in English. I asked them what was going on as no one spoke a word of English before, and they told me 17 of the women in the association were now taking daily English lessons because they learned "English is the language of coffee." They don't rest nor do they give up.

So now when I have a rough day or I think I'm not doing what I should be doing, I say to myself...the women from ASOMOBI built something out of nothing...they didn't have networks, books on positive thinking, or even a strong internet connection.

And yet, they figured it out.

To learn more about ASOMOBI, visit here. Learn more about The International Women's Coffee Alliance here. A Small Section of the World premieres on Pivot today, 01-14-2015, at 9p EST. Available now on VOD on itunes, Amazon instant video, google play, xbox video and VHX.