Partner Spotlight: Grounds for Empowerment

Partner Spotlight: Grounds for Empowerment

Here at CCI, the phrase, “it takes a village” rings true to our work. Over the next few months, we’re highlighting organizations and individuals in our village who help make our work possible: our incredible and supportive partners.

We hosted our May First Friday program with Grounds for Empowerment, one of the specialty coffee programs powered by Social Enterprise @ Goizueta, an action-oriented research center located within the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. GFE works to economically empower female coffee farmers in Central and South America by providing them with the market connections and know-how to grow their coffee farms into prospering small businesses. We sipped coffee with Aelish Benjamin-Brown, the Program Associate for GFE, and we discussed her program’s work in international development and local empowerment.

Thanks for chatting with us today, Aelish! Let’s start from the beginning: how did Grounds For Empowerment come to be and what are you all up to now?

A few years ago, Peter Roberts, a professor at the Business School at Emory, was researching startups within the Social Enterprise Center. Initially, he was examining the wine industry, but through the exploration process, he took note of the social aspects of the coffee industry. After realizing how many discrepancies remain in the coffee industry, Professor Roberts zeroed in on the severe gender imbalance in the coffee industry in Central and South America. That’s how Grounds for Empowerment emerged in 2016. GFE is gender-focused, working to empower female coffee farmers in Central and South America. GFE embodies a startup accelerator approach, where we provide workshops, materials, and networking opportunities for our farmers to learn more, so they have negotiating power when they are going into business transactions.

“It’s a co-learning experience because we’re learning a lot from the farmers and they’re learning from us”

“It’s a co-learning experience because we’re learning a lot from the farmers and they’re learning from us”

When we first started, Giselle, our program manager who lives in Central America, drove around the country with my predecessor and networked on the ground with co-operatives – where farmers come together to gain more bargaining power in transactions – trying to identify the women coffee producers. That’s how we identified our first three farmers. Recently, we ran new workshop in Guatemala, where we worked with their National Coffee Association. They helped us identify 10-12 women farmers in the region whom we brought into our workshops and mentorship networks. A lot of the work is building those relationships first in order to identify people who stand to benefit from business guidance.

How do you build authentic relationships with the coffee farmers?

You don’t want to have a savior complex. It’s all about empowerment and them owning their stories, their numbers, and their side of the transaction. And it’s the same in the U.S. where you have to be working with the local community. You can’t just be coming in from the outside. It’s a co-learning experience because we’re learning a lot from the farmers and they’re learning from us. There is a lot we don’t know about coffee production, but we have business knowledge. We bridge the gap by being open-minded.

We want to collaborate with other organizations to share both space and knowledge about the industry. If we silo ourselves off, it is ultimately not benefiting the farmer.
— Aelish Benjamin-Brown
Why Atlanta?  “The same kind of community spirit we have here in Atlanta, you can find it elsewhere.”

Why Atlanta?

“The same kind of community spirit we have here in Atlanta, you can find it elsewhere.”

Are there other programs similar to GFE in the states? What differentiates GFE from your counterparts?

There are, but we’re not trying to isolate ourselves from others who do the same thing. We want to collaborate with other organizations to share both space and knowledge about the industry. If we silo ourselves off, it is ultimately not benefiting the farmer. We’re lucky that, so far, everyone else’s priority has also been giving back to origin, although we all emphasize slightly different techniques for achieving the same ends. For us, that’s finance, marketing, and storytelling. Also, having backing from a major university like Emory has afforded us with not only resources and business expertise at-hand, but also legitimacy when engaging with local partners in Atlanta and abroad.

What does a typical day look like for the female farmers you work with?

Most of the women we work with are mothers or have siblings that rely on them. They’re all super early risers, waking up at 4:30-5:00 a.m., and have to make coffee, make breakfast, and clean the house to support their families. During harvest season, they are picking or sorting coffee beans for the rest of the day. It’s labor intensive, and what money they make from the season sustains them for the rest of the year. When it’s not harvest season, the farm still has to be maintained. We’ve been lucky to work with a lot of women who are focused on their communities as well. Many do work for their cooperatives.

Return to Origin  “There are people behind that cup of coffee you drink every day”

Return to Origin

“There are people behind that cup of coffee you drink every day”

What challenges is gfe facing today?

A major challenge is the difficulty of measuring the impact of work like this. Our producers are getting a dollar and change per pound of coffee, and we’ve noticed a lot are running a net negative. But, prices take five or even ten years to see a big change. For a program in its infancy that only started three years ago, how do you measure impact? It’s going to take time for us to see the products of our labor, but for us the impact is seeing farmers share knowledge between themselves.

What drove you to get involved with Gfe?

When I first applied for this job, I was focused on economic development in Latin America because that’s where my heart was and that’s what I had studied. I had never thought about looking at these issues through a gender lens. For me, it was empowering to see women helping other women in a space and in a culture where women aren’t always the priority. I also like that it isn’t a one-way flow of knowledge. Working directly with the farmers and getting their input has been much more productive than us diagnosing their situation and prescribing a solution. We’re not just armchair experts. There’s the opportunity for expanding all of the work we do in our tall buildings and in front of big computer screens. Our work has a function, and that was my big excitement behind the project: seeing functional knowledge being taken to origin, and then seeing that knowledge in collaboration with the people it’s intended to impact.

What can coffee consumers in the United States do to support the cause?

Consumers can know where their coffee comes from. There is so much culture behind coffee, but it’s important to remember that there are people behind that cup of coffee you drink every day to get you up in the morning, people that don’t see a lot of that money and are struggling. Just do that preliminary research to find out where your coffee is coming from. People also ask us, ‘why expand into Atlanta?’ But the thing is, our work originates from our community; Emory is part of the Atlanta community and our center works with and learns from the people here. All of this great work that’s being done at origin is being inspired within Atlanta. Further, many of the women farmers attend workshops on behalf of their cooperatives. Allowing these women to build social capital and share the passion will enable them and their networks to keep moving forward. The same kind of community spirit we have here in Atlanta, you can find it elsewhere.

Ruth Zheng