Interview with Volcafe’s Sustainability Manager Reena Eddiks
Earlier this year, USAID Green Invest Asia spoke to Reena Eddiks, sustainability manager for one of the world’s largest global trading houses of coffee, Volcafe, to learn more about the company’s views on women in the coffee value chain, and sustainability focus. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In an increasingly competitive industry such as coffee, how much room do you see for diversity programming in Southeast Asia?
At the moment, Volcafe is still establishing its sustainability structure in Southeast Asia. Regarding sustainability at Volcafe, there is a lot of diversity in our supplier programs. In terms of sourcing, we are one of the biggest coffee trading houses worldwide and certification is part of our repertoire. We have the typical certifications – 4C, Fairtrade, UTZ/Rainforest – but we also have clients with their own standards, such as Starbucks with CAFÉ practices, Nespresso AAA, and we have also developed our own standard called Volcafe Way, which is even more intensive in terms of cooperation with the farmers and looking at the profitability of the farmers.
Is there anything in the Volcafe Way looking at improving opportunities for women?
Absolutely. This commitment to improving women’s opportunities’ is an important aspect of Volcafe Way. We benchmark our empowerment approach with the most common sustainability standards and we seek very close cooperation with the farmer and the entire family. The entry point is learning what the household looks like, to what extent women are included and part of decision-making processes. Depending on the country, the process of doing this fact-finding differs. One thing we do globally is to rely on locals who have a background in coffee farming and can develop strong empathy with farmers and their families. These relationships increase the adoption rate among farmers of the advice we provide.
What is the most likely entry point for women along the coffee value chain?
At the farms, women are playing a major role in the activities at field level. This is why their involvement in trainings is crucial, as otherwise the knowledge transfer within the families would not necessarily happen. You would have distribution of know-how, but the expertise is still not getting to the field. We want to ensure the transfer happens within the household as well. Patriarchy can be deeply ingrained in the local culture, and it is neither our intention nor role to change this. However, if the family wants to see impact, we try to minimize barriers to information for women. Labor to manually sort and select the beans seems to be done mostly by women. Throughout our supply chain we try to integrate women as much as men, but as an industry, we still have some development potential.
What can be done to create opportunities for women?
Further implementing Volcafe Way, because it gives the possibility to work with a gender focus in the field. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to create any kind of leverage in the field. We focus on what we can do internally to strengthen women in their roles and provide diversity in their employment.
Volcafe Way in details
The Volcafe Way looks a bit different in each of the areas where we work, as we adjust to each area’s cultures and languages. Volcafe has an extensive structure of exporting companies all over the globe. Oftentimes, these companies already have technical assistance programs in place, for example in connection with certifications and verifications. Our colleagues make sure that sustainable supply chains are not only in place, but also kept up to date. We start with a basic analysis of farms; where is the farm, how big is it, how old are the trees, how productive are the trees, how much time is the farmer investing in manual labour, how much is invested in inputs, are there secondary sources of income ? We carry out an in-depth analysis to understand how this particular farm works and then develop an annual plan of how we can support the farming family to become more profitable.
This process is carried out through an internal team of agronomists – about 250 operating in the 9 countries where Volcafe is implementing the Volcafe Way.
For those that say that sustainability is too idealistic for a market-driven world, what would you respond?
From my standpoint, this is a risky opinion because it is too short-term oriented. We need the courage to look beyond what is going to happen in three months, one year – and need to understand what issues influence our sector. I see a lot of experts estimating the amount crops for the following year, based on supply and demand, but I think that factors such as climate change, rural de-population, and other issues are putting our commodity at stake, and are being underestimated.
Advice for any other woman seeking to enter the coffee sector?
Don’t be afraid but also don’t be fooled. By nature, coffee is still a rather male-dominated environment and sometimes it helps to take it easy and have a little humor. All in all, coffee is a product that people feel very passionate about, at all levels in the supply chain – and it is seldom that someone leaves the sector. In a way, it is a big family.
What is the biggest sustainability trend in coffee that you see on the horizon?
It’s a topic that has been around for a while now and we need to be careful that we don’t become numb to it. But because sustainability was introduced so long ago in coffee, we are learning and growing to be more sophisticated. What started with the Fairtrade, UTZ, and Rainforest standards in the early 1990s showed to be a great start to make the topic more tangible for the end consumer. But 30 years later, with a coffee price below 1 USD, coffee is starting to be a poor man’s crop again. We need to be more proactive in looking for alternative solutions and cooperation across the sector. Coffee is one of the furthest along also because it’s such a passionate product – you always connect with the farmer who is behind it. But, we are seeing great achievements in cotton and cocoa that we as a sector should take as an example. We cannot tolerate that the coffee farmers are unable to cover their costs, afford an education for their children or are forced into leaving their farms.
Read USAID Green Invest Asia’s latest study on women in coffee to learn more.