I Rode The Small Horse: How The Goddesses Flipped The Script On The Coffee Chain

When I landed in Managua, Nicaragua, I was met at the airport by a friendly man named Felix who took me on a quiet drive up the northern mountainous region to meet the members of a revolutionary women’s coffee cooperative called Las Diosas (The Goddesses). 

He was perhaps the only male employee of Las Diosas and their parent organization FEM, a holdout of their rather patriarchal society where men still do most of the driving. Felix was polite, affable, and ready to get moving. I threw my bag in the back of his truck and we were off. 

After a long trip through the steamy lowlands we began our ascent into the highlands. The dusty small towns gave way to a lush, green landscape and the air turned cooler as we rose. After driving into the outskirts of the city of Esteli, we wound up a steep hill and stopped at a small building made of wood, surrounded by flowers. I stepped out of the truck, grabbed my backpack, and walked inside.

A young woman, courteous and businesslike, greeted us at the door and buzzed us in. The office was full of tropical plants and photos of women — some standing alone and looking quite serious, others in groups with big triumphant smiles. We were met by a powerfully calm woman named Juana who would be one of my main guides for the two days I would be in town. 

I Rode The Small Horse: How The Goddesses Flipped The Script On The Coffee Chain 1
FEM’s Juana Villareyna in the village of El Colorado

“Thanks for coming all of this way” she said in her native Spanish, as we walked back to a larger meeting room with a table and chairs. All exchanges over those days would be in Spanish. “I’m a little surprised that you came all the way out here, but only have two days to spend with us.”  

“I wish I had more time,” I said. “I have to visit another group in Matagalpa and then get back home. I’m hoping to hear more about you, visit some farms, and talk a little about how we could work together. Afterwards I’ll go back and discuss with my company whether we think this could be a good fit.” Back then I worked for a coffee company in Madison, Wisconsin and we were interested in buying Las Diosas coffee and partnering with them, potentially bringing their coffee to all of the roasters in our Cooperative Coffees network.

Juana chuckled a little at that and said, “Ok. We have some farm visits lined up and we’re looking forward to talking with you, too. After spending the night in one of the communities, we will spend the last day with women from different committees for our interview.”

“Oh, it doesn’t have to be that formal,” I reassured her. “I really just want to hear more about you all so I can go back and let the others know. From everything we’ve heard, you all would be a great fit for us.” 

I wanted to relieve any pressure they might feel.

She looked at me rather amused and said, “Well that’s good to hear. But we will be interviewing you to see if we want to sell you our coffee. And we don’t know you well enough yet to know if it would be a good fit or not”. 

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Las Diosas farmer Doña Veronica on her farm in the village of Los Llanos

The coffee industry has a long history of being male-centric. While this has changed a bit over the past couple of decades, men still tend to be the dominant force in the industry. So I had immediately jumped at the chance to visit a cooperative that is owned and operated by women, to see first-hand their organization, and hopefully to create a fair trade partnership with them.

This was something new. “Oh…okay” was all I could manage. Her response flipped the script on the farmer visits that I had made in the past. I thought of myself as a “fair trader” who was a breath of fresh air from the more traditional buyers most coffee farmers were used to. In initial conversations I would make sure that co-ops knew that we were “the good guys” and that we would be looking to right the wrongs of coffee industry contact they had experienced in the past. The fact that these women were not immediately swayed by my company’s messaging and that they needed to talk extensively with me was a real departure. They were vetting me, not vice-versa.

After the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, women of the region formed the Fundacion Entre Mujeres (FEM) to combat the culture of violence against women and to help empower women in Northern Nicaragua. They focused on issues of domestic abuse, women’s health, and economic independence. Over time they became the most powerful women’s organization in Northern Nicaragua.

After getting a good background on La FEM’s history and the history of their coffee project, we jumped back into the truck and drove further up into the mountains toward the border with Honduras to visit farmers from Las Diosas. After traveling on a pock marked dirt road for the last hour we arrived in the small village of Los Llanos. I was greeted at the end of a muddy two-track by three women on horseback. There was a tiny and spotted grey horse, more of an old pony really, with a saddle and no rider. This was going to be my ride. We all introduced ourselves and I proceeded to mount my steed. The pony was so short that my feet in the stirrups were only roughly six inches off of the ground. As we started our slow ascent into the mountains to visit their fields and to see their depulping station, I tried not to scrape my dangling toes on the path.

I Rode The Small Horse: How The Goddesses Flipped The Script On The Coffee Chain 3
A young mother and child in the village of El Colorado

The day was amazing — I was so impressed with these women who had overcome situations of abuse and war to become the economic heads of their families. They worked incredibly hard with very little and had forged their own businesses. They showed me their fields full of coffee plants bursting with green cherries and full shade trees teeming with birds and insects. It was magical. When we returned to Esteli for our day of talks, I was incredibly excited and optimistic. I sat on a small bench outside a conference room as women filed in from the communities. At the top of the hour I stood up to walk inside. 

Juana met me at the door and said “We need to meet and talk for a while before we start. Make yourself at home and let the staff know if you need anything.” 

With that she closed the door and I sat down on a wooden bench outside to wait. I had assumed we would go through formalities and then quickly come to an agreement to partner up. That was apparently not going to be the case. After close to an hour of waiting and sipping sweet black coffee on the bench, I was invited into the room.

Around the table sat ten women whose faces turned towards me to greet me. Juana introduced them as the Directors of the Las Diosas coffee project. We exchanged introductions and then we began, what I still assumed would be, a short discussion that would end with them expressing interest in selling us coffee. I would ask the women questions about their production volume, cultivars, and desired price. Along with these nuts and bolts, I would find out more about their other initiatives and things that they were involved with outside of coffee. When we were done I would have a nice package of stories and pictures that I could take back to the others in the U.S. to get them excited about this new relationship. Las Diosas had other ideas.

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Cristian Merlo from Las Diosas

Juana started the day off with a framing of what was to come. It was not what I had expected.

“Matt, we are happy to be here with you this morning. Over the day members of three committees will be coming in — The Board of Directors, the leaders of the coffee project, and a group of women who are studying the political economics of the coffee market. All of them have prepared questions for you and are prepared to answer any that you might have. After we interview you we will meet with representatives from these groups and we will decide whether we feel you all would be good partners for us.”

This didn’t sound like the meetings that I’d participated in in the past where a small group of farmers representing their co-ops would come in, answer our questions, possibly ask a few of their own, and then we would all agree to work together. The whole thing typically would last a couple of hours at the most. At those meetings, no matter how we tried to defuse it, a power dynamic was present that implicitly acknowledged the buyer was in charge of the situation. It was uncomfortable and we always tried to work around it but, for me, it was forever there in the background and felt awkward. The program Juana introduced flipped that logic on its head. I was going to be the one interviewed and they would decide if we were a good fit.

Juana invited the women to speak.

“Thanks for coming all this way to talk with us,” one of the women began. “It is a real honor to have you here for this interview. The two questions I have for you to start off is, how does your company define fair trade? And do you think trade can really be fair when producers who grow the coffee you sell receive such a small portion of the final amount that is paid for a pound of coffee?”

We went from there. Over the course of the day we read articles and discussed them at length. We looked at the coffee industry and talked about its roots and history of control by wealthy Europeans and how it had, or had not, evolved. We interrogated the idea of what a truly “fair trade” would look like and what was possible in a partnership between our organizations. All of our conversations were frank, honest, and thought-provoking. 

At the end of a long day filled with excellent and challenging conversation, I was invited to leave the room. Juana closed the door and I sat watching the afternoon light play on the tropical plants and stone tile thinking about what had transpired. I was nervous and apprehensive. I wondered if the women would be satisfied with my thoughts and explanations of how we operated and how we wanted to change the coffee industry. I worried that my descriptions made us seem lame. I wondered if we were lame and if I had deluded myself with self-congratulatory beliefs about what we were doing and how much it mattered. It had become clear over the course of the day that we needed to go deeper.

Juana invited me back into the room and I sat down in the chair that I had been occupying. The women all looked at me without much expression. I felt like it could go either way.

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“Matt, we want to thank you again for coming and for going through this process with us. We operate democratically and the women needed to speak with you and ask you questions before they made a decision. We did take a vote and we have come to a decision”. 

She paused for what I remember as a very long time, but was most likely a matter of seconds. I squirmed a little in my seat.

“We’ve decided that, if you all are willing, we’d like to partner with you and sell you our coffee” she smiled widely.

I breathed out a long sigh of relief. That day was the beginning of a long and great partnership with FEM and their nascent farmer cooperative Las Diosas. Over the years our relationship has been the model for me of how to work with a farmer group and go beyond the buying and selling of coffee. It also showed the possibilities of what a “partnership” with farmers could mean and I took much inspiration by the courage of these women and how they organized against the grain of patriarchy in their society in general and in the coffee industry in particular. I took this inspiration back with me and it informed the way I saw my own business and how it existed in the coffee world from that day forward. 

Over the years I have visited them regularly and maintained a relationship with them. A few years back I took my daughters to meet them and to see the incredible work that they do. My daughters were floored by their work, perseverance and strength; they saw, in that, that women can do anything. Having the opportunity to introduce them to the women of Las Diosas has been one of my favorite experiences over the twenty years that I’ve been in the coffee business.

Las Diosas is a truly unique coffee co-op, but they are becoming less of an anomaly as women in many producing countries organize into their own associations to better control their resources and their destinies. The women of Diosas and FEM have negotiated incredible challenges — from crop failures to weather catastrophes to natural disasters to political strife, but they always continue to move forward. If you’d like to know more about FEM and Las Diosas, check out those links. And if you’d like to sample some of their delicious coffee you can grab a bag of Cafe Campesino’s Nicaraguan single origin coffee.

Tasting Notes:

AROMA: Vanilla, Malt, Dark Chocolate
BODY: Balanced
FLAVOR NOTES: Tobacco, Raisin, Milk Chocolate

May 6, 2021
BY Matt Earley
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