By: Gabriela Albuja
Mery Santos, a passionate, energetic, and successful business woman, is a vivid example of a life dedicated to making a difference. Originally from Venezuela, her career began more or less conventionally, earning a living working with a logistics company. But in 1999 Mery decided to take a leap and change her career path by getting involved in a different, but enticing world: coffee. She began working for a big, international corporation that sold coffee equipment.
After gaining experience in the sector and realizing that what she truly wanted was to make a difference for coffee farmers in the field, she founded Sedna Coffee Roasters, a mission-driven coffee company based in California focused on making a meaningful impact in the lives of women in coffee around the globe. To achieve its mission, Sedna places income directly into the hands of women farmers, develops long lasting relationships with women producers, and facilitates farmer access to resources such as training and education. Santos’s company also emphasizes the environmental aspects involved in coffee production, sourcing its produce from women farmers in Rwanda, Sumatra and Guatemala who work with diverse agroforestry systems that contribute to soil and biodiversity conservation. High quality coffee has resulted in an average of 10%-15% higher prices for these women farmers.
With a strong commitment to socio-environmental development, Sedna was one of the two winners of 2017 Canopy Bridge´s contest “Economy and Forests: Facilitating Direct Trade of Sustainable Natural Products in Latin America,” earning a grant to visit co-op ACODIHUE in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. The purpose of the trip, to take place this month, is to evaluate coffee production methods, negotiate coffee prices and help improve the livelihoods of local women farmers through income generation.
Mery Santos is a multifaceted woman who has also been very active in the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), where she served on the board for 8 years and was appointed president during 2015-2017. Mery helped IWCA continue as a platform developing activities, programs and events that aim at helping women coffee farmers to improve their production and well being. For instance, in Guatemala, IWCA promotes a competition for “coffee grafting” a technique almost unique to the country, and mainly performed by indigenous women. “The competition allows these women to build confidence and self-esteem, and be proud of a skill set that is necessary to the industry. The rewards are cash prizes that come at the right time for these women to invest in the school supplies for their kids,” explains Santos. In India, IWCA celebrates a “Coffee Santhe” which is a festival promoting the young Baristas to compete at different levels and show their skills. The reward is the recognition that allows them to find better jobs in an industry that is exponentially growing in India.
But there are still many challenges that need to be overcome for women’s empowerment and inclusion in the coffee sector. Mery notes that “gender inclusiveness continues to be the biggest challenge for women in coffee. The goal is to find the balance where women have the same access to resources and their work is recognized and treated equally regardless of their gender: Equal pay, equal access to credit, equal opportunities based on their skills.” This is why organizations such as the IWCA continue to advocate for gender equality and local change, making small but significant improvements in the lives of women farmers across the globe.
“Compared to 20 years ago, more women have become leaders and advocates for change” says Santos, with the hope that women continue to become empowered and take further steps towards more equality in the coffee industry.
Women in coffee are “powerful, resourceful, creative, and fearless and it is their drive that keeps inspiring new business models, to keep improving women farmers lives, one cup at a time,” says Santos.