Coffee, Cupping, and Collective Action


IWCA includes women’s businesses, large and small, at every step in the coffee supply chain, working together around the world to improve female participation in this huge industry.


Today, my doctoral student, Mary Johnstone-Louis and I met with Professor David Upton, who will be one of the teachers for our case study on the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), to be taught at the upcoming Women in the World Economy Forum.  The IWCA is an alliance of women who own businesses at every point in the global supply chain for coffee, as well as touching female employees of the coffee industry:  it stretches from small growers and their workers in rural areas to big roasters and exporters, all the way to women who own trendy coffeehouses in the big cities of North America.  The organization has been working for a decade to help women grow their businesses within this industry and, along the journey, they have confronted all the challenges that face women worldwide as they negotiate the world of enterprise.  So they make a great case study for people interested in women’s entrepreneurship from nearly any perspective.

David is a highly respected expert on operations management, including supply chains, and he has experience dealing with disadvantaged parties in several industries and countries.  When Mary and I briefed him today about IWCA, he asked a lot of tough questions—but then he said “This is going to be a really good case.”  And we were delighted!


Here’s Mary, at Lorena Calvo’s Finca Los Andes in Guatemala, learning “grafting,” another important skill that IWCA is trying to teach women under its umbrella. This process is  fundamental to coffee survival, as it helps against a devastating blight Central America currently faces. 


Mary has interviewed more than 30 members of the organization, including the largest and longest-standing members, as well as new arrivals and small farmers.  She travelled to Guatemala a few months ago to attend IWCA’s tenth anniversary conference, along with women from all over the world engaged in the coffee business, and was able to visit farms and observe coffee trade practices.  She learned  a lot about the standard setting and negotiation that goes on around the world and the ways that IWCA is trying to get women prepared to “sit at the table.”

When writing the case, Mary will focus on a key decision point facing the organization, but will use this challenge to highlight issues that will resonate for the participants at the Forum, who represent a very broad spectrum of institutions, industries, and nationalities, but who are all, one way or another, experts engaged in supporting, studying, financing—or just plain being—women entrepreneurs.

The IWCA has developed an expansive remit because the challenges to women, especially in the coffee-producing countries, are significant.  In Africa, for instance, women tend to work the farms that produce the coffee, but not own them, and have a very difficult time getting control over the money they earn.  IWCA has made a big difference by connecting these women to each other (and to the global community), training them in key skills (like cupping, see below), supporting them in leadership roles, and advocating for them with agencies at the national and international level.  (There is a very nice NPR description of these activities–with gorgeous photographs–here.)


Phyllis Johnson, center, at the IWCA 10th Anniversary conference in Guatemala. On the left is Isabelle Sinemenya, IWCA Chapter President, Burundi. On the right is Pauline Ntaconkurikira, Assistant Secretary to the IWCA Burundi executive board.


The Forum is going to include a session on measurement.  For people who have a more practical bent, it sometimes seems a bit academic to be worrying about measurement. But, in coffee as in other industries, the absence of data on women is a major problem:  it basically means they don’t count, they are invisible.  Margaret Swallow, who was one of IWCA’s founders and has been a fellow traveller with us on this effort, has recently written an opinion piece that emphasizes the very practical importance of “getting counted.” You can download it here: StraightfromtheCupFeb2013. These are the kinds of issues we will be trying to foreground in the case–and at the Forum throughout.

All three of the professors who will teach the case at the forum—David, but also Professor John Deighton and Peter Tufano (our Dean)—are very accomplished case teachers and writers themselves.  All three of them spent many years at Harvard, teaching in the business school, which is, of course, famous for its cases and its method.  The cases will be taught in our lecture theatres, just as we do for the MBAs and our executive programs.  Forum attendees will be sent the case in advance so that they can prepare.

I think we can anticipate a high quality experience.  But to add to the authenticity, three leaders in the IWCA community will also be present to do the wrap up and answer questions:  Phyllis Johnson, Pacita Juan, and Desiree Logsdon.  Phyllis Johnson, who founded US-based BD Imports, is the outgoing president of IWCA and was recently selected to be a board member of the National Coffee Association in the US—a 102 year old body, very important, that has had only 7 women in its entire history!  Pacita Juan founded ECHOstore coffeehouses when she was a college student and is now head of the Philippine Coffee Board  (she is a self-described “serial entrepreneur”). Desiree Logsdon is on the board of IWCA, but she is also vice president of marketing for Bunn-O-Matic, a major manufacturer of coffee-making equipment, and a respected community activist.


Pacita Juan, center, in her store in the Philippines. Pacita signed the papers to join IWCA at the meeting in Guatemala where Mary was doing her research.


Afterward, the three coffee experts will treat the attendees—all 200 of them!—to a coffee cupping and tasting. I feel a bit ignorant in admitting this, but I did not know that learning to discern the taste of quality coffees and to compare them across regions is like being a sommelier.  A highly valued and valuable skill, the ability to lead tastings and cuppings is somewhat rare among women, so one of the IWCA’s objectives is getting more women into that position.  It makes a big difference in your ability to produce and sell a quality product if you are an accomplished cupper and taster.


Here is the bar where we will stage the coffee tasting. The room wraps around the bar at both ends, with very nice seating, and then opens out to a beautiful view of the gardens, with seating on the deck. 


We are planning to offer this experience from our cushy Club Room in the new West Wing of the Said School.  We will also be hosting a book-signing for all the authors who are attending the conference, including Dame Stephanie Shirley, whose autobiography I have been reading.  More on that later!  The Club Room opens out onto a gorgeous deck that overlooks the gardens behind the School.  I am praying for good weather—but for England in May, that may be asking too much!

We have quite a lot of video and other supplementary material that will be posted along with the case.  However, as a teaser for what is to come, this video produced by the International Trade Center is wonderful.


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