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How coffee private family enterprises enhance well-being and women empowerment? A diverse economies case study of Tarrazú coffee micro-mills. Los Santos Region, Costa Rica

Nunez-Solis, Maria
Fields of Research
ANZSRC::160804 Rural Sociology , ANZSRC::16 Studies in Human Society , ANZSRC::070108 Sustainable Agricultural Development
A small but growing number of producer households in Costa Rica are processing their coffee and selling it directly to specialty markets through the Relationship Coffee Model (RCM). These private family enterprises are called micro-mills, initiatives that have created opportunities to enhance empowerment of women, household well-being and sustainability of coffee production. This practice occurs within a coffee commodity chain that is commonly characterised as perpetuating low incomes for family producers and significant profits for retailers and commercial roasters around the world. As a commodity, coffee is associated with intensive productions systems, producer specialization in primary production and the relegation of women to traditional household roles. Responding to consistently low prices under this model, Tarrazú coffee households have embraced the innovation of family owned micro-mills and are learning to be part of direct producer-buyer relationships and networks. In this study I evaluate the dynamics of the Costa Rican coffee sector by analysing the experiences of micro-mill households from the perspective of the diverse economies (DE) approach. This framework recognises the value of non-market and non-financial social relations in addition to more traditional market returns. It improves understanding of the diversity of economic and environmental practices that coffee households use, and contributes to the assessment of the potential of family operated micro-mill enterprises as a sustainable model for Costa Rica’s coffee sector. Using a mixed method approach, I conducted 63 surveys with conventional and micro-mill households, and one focus group and 15 interviews with women and man from micro-mill households. Results show that owning a micro-mill and selling coffee through the RCM enhances the well-being of producers’ families and facilitates women’s empowerment and producers’ agency in the coffee value chain. Micro-mill households claimed to have greater engagement with the coffee market; family unity and reduction of migration by the young; better income; a strong sense of occupational well-being; and sense of contributing to their community’s development. Gender equality and micro-mill women empowerment results – informed by the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEIA) and the feminist sociology concept of ‘power-within’– showed that women involved in micro-mills have reached significant advances in WEAI’s five domains and demonstrate critical consciousness of the agency they have acquire. Through the gender focus, I identified that women have leadership capabilities at the processing and value-adding stages of the coffee value-chain. Likewise, applying the DE approach in the context of specialty coffee production affirms the contribution of women’s economic strategies and non-paid activities to the household and family enterprise. Lastly, the experimentation process by micro-mill households and their networks with the RCM has enhanced their agency. They embrace the potential to set a price floor for their coffee (a negotiated premium price subject to the cupping score). They especially value their experiences and close relationships with buyers and traders. Their improved capabilities derive from the acquisition of knowledge of the coffee processing and selling stages, the innovation of offering coffee services in the region, and the active promotion of consuming their own coffee production. Furthermore, the specialty coffee markets provide strong incentives to adopt agri-ecological farming practices.