Strong Coffee: Fair Trade and Feminism in the World of Coffee

Film Review By Roger Landes

As with millions of Americans, my day begins with a large, piping hot cup of coffee. No cream, no sugar. Or, on days when I wake up late, I’ll throw in a couple of ice cubes so that I might slide it down my gullet while running out the door. I tend to buy the second-least-expensive bulk coffee I can find at the grocery store and only in the most basic flavor available. Even in coffee shops I usually just go with the most basic flavor, mainly for fear of lacking some sort of lingo necessary to order without the baristas rolling their eyes at me. In short, my coffee purchases have been based upon the ease of the transaction and not having to think about my choice whatsoever.

And that, I have learned, has been a mistake.

It’s not that I didn’t understand what organic food was. It implies that the food was held to a higher standard of production and quality. It also means it is more expensive. So my confusion was not in what was organic, but why choose organic.

And here we find the most important message of Strong Coffee. Coffee is second only to oil as a traded commodity, and is primarily produced in Africa and South and Central America. The average coffee farmer makes about $2 a day, while big business brings in billions of dollars through imports and exports. The documentary chronicles the creation and management of Café Femenino, a coffee co-op that aims to redirect the balance of money towards the farmers of the actual coffee.

For over 40 years, Isabel Latorre and her husband Victor Rojas have been working to aid female coffee farmers in Peru who were being abused by a chauvinistic society and economy. Abuse of women was climbing to the rate of 70%, and a machismo attitude kept women from having an education or being able to make any real money. Latorre began educating the female farmers to improve their production to organic standards. She got into contact with Garth Smith, an organic coffee importer from Washington. With the help of his wife Gaylene, they started Café Femenino, made up of exclusively female farmers and administrators. At the heart of the group were two ideals: fair trade and feminism.

Café Femenino demonstrates all of the best aspects of both of these concepts. The farmers must meet strict criteria to be classified as organic, which sells at a much higher price on the international market. In order to make sure that these proceeds are indeed coming from the women farmers, the farm land that the farming is occurring must be owned by a woman. This helps restructure the family economic model; by bringing in more capital, the women have more pull within the family structure. Also, the roasters must to sell the beans with 2% of profits must be donated to women’s crisis centers. The film shows several different locations in Washington where women’s shelters have been sustained solely because of the sale of Café Femenino coffee in their area.

The film displays the painstaking process that these women go through in order to provide for their families, as well as showing the incredible benefits of their hard work. The film also shows the dedication of the administrators and the roasters have for supplying great coffee to the public, while still holding the integrity of the company. And this is where the message truly resonated for me. I find the commitment to making a better life for people, and the sacrifices made to be very moving.

Why organic? I don’t know. Maybe because going to Stauf’s and buying Café Femenino instead of Folgers isn’t really that much of a sacrifice for me to make. And neither is paying the extra coin. But the result can be tremendous.