By Kelle Vandenberg, Vice President of Marketing, Pacific Bag Inc. & VP of IWCA

In the world of coffee, women do the majority of the work, but still are faced with many challenges including financial and cultural ones. Organizations such as the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) are working to improve the lives of women in the coffee sector by removing barriers and offering education, training, developing skills, creativity and business opportunities. In Part I of a two-part series, we hear from women in the coffee sector–at origin–who have struggled, but didn’t stray from their journeys in coffee and found their voices along the way. Below are two of these women’s stories. 

I live in the United States and enjoy a rather comfortable life, filled with laughter, joys, triumphs, and occasionally, challenges. I make choices about my life every day. Small choices, big choices, and some of them have changed my life. My small corner of the world is not perfect, but it is pretty golden. I am grateful that I was able to make the decisions about my life that led me to the road I am on today.

But what if my life were stripped of those choices, paired back to a minimalistic existence with few options for education, for opportunities, or the hope of change? In many places in the world, choice is not something tangible, but something only dreamed about. The paths aren’t chosen, but rather, there is but one road to go down.

Often times, it is due to economic circumstances or lack of educational opportunities and cultural barriers. For women in many places around the world, it is all three. Many of these places happen to be where coffee is grown. Of the world’s estimated one billion poor, 70 percent are women. Women own less than 1 percent of the world’s titled land, per IWCA data. Yet, in the world of coffee, women do most of the work. 

This is the first in a two-part series that will focus on the stories of women in coffee and how they inspire change. These women found their voices. In fact, when I reached out to women to share their stories and their journeys, they didn’t just speak out; these women sang—with pride, with honor, and with courage. In the stories we will be sharing, you will learn about their journeys and the road they are on—in their voices and in their own words. I am honored to introduce you to the Women in Coffee…

Maria Isabel Balbuena, Dominican Republic

My name is Maria Isabel Balbuena. I was born in Puerto Plata Province, located at the northern coastline of Dominican Republic. I am a single mother, one child (41) and two adopted daughters, who are my nieces; all married with families of their own. I have eight grandchildren that I adore. My mother died in 1989, my father is 103 years old, and although his mind sometimes wanders, physically he looks good and feels good. I come from a large family, 18 siblings in total (16 girls and 2 boys). Two of my sisters are already keeping company with my mother. My family is very important to me. We help each other, we support each other emotionally and in during economic difficult times, we also support each other financially. My friends are my biggest family.

In 1968, I started to work as a secretary in the Agro Research Department part of the Agricultural Ministry. In 1988, I was promoted to be part of the Roya Prevention Program. In 1990, I met Mr. Rufino Herrera, the leader of the South Region Coffee Federation, which is a small organization whose members are small coffee producers (men and women). I was so impressed on how much social work was being done, with little financial and academic resources. This made me decide to volunteer my expertise on the logistics and export of the coffee. In 1993, the Federation hired me as their commercialization manager, a position I still have.

With the objective to contribute to improving the quality of the lives of the women in coffee who sometimes work 16 hours days under severe conditions, who live under extreme poverty, especially in coffee communities where there is lack of potable water and basic services, I got involved on a proposal to study the role of women in the Dominica Republic coffee sector. The main fundamental objective of this study was to collect relevant data about the participation of women in the coffee sector which would be the base to define public policy and institutions oriented to the human development of families in the coffee sector.

In 2006, along with a group of women in the producing sector and with ties with the production of coffee and the value chain, we began the conversation with the objective to form an entity where all the women in the coffee value chain, would have a voice and a presence, with the strategic objective: prioritize the improvement of the lives of the women in the coffee sector promoting training, promotion, commercialization and strengthening business.

In 2011, the Asociacion Dominicana Mujeres en Café, was legally registered as an NGO. The same year, the Association signed the Letter of Understanding with the International Women Coffee Alliance (IWCA) to become the Dominican Republic IWCA Chapter. I am a passionate human being, I enjoy what I do. If I had the choice to go back, I would not change a thing. I would have the same lovers, I would love my son and my adopted kids the same, solidarity, work, and beer, but most respect for all human beings and animals. This is my story. I am Maria Isabel Balbuena from Dominica Republic.

Gloria Miguelina Villatoro de Mèrida, Guatemala

My name is Gloria Miguelina Villatoro de Mèrida, owner of the farm El Paternal, a coffee plantation located in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. I belong to the third generation of coffee growers of my family, as my grandfather and my father also dedicated themselves with great effort and devotion to the cultivation and production of coffee.

In my family we were seven children, three older sons myself, and another three younger sons. My brothers always I thought that I would never be able to handle the work or to run the farm.

I inherited the farm 16 years ago and during the first year, as a result of the Hurricane Mitch, the coffee processing area sank and we were unable to save it. We needed to build a new one in another area and we took advantage of this situation and built an ecologically friendly processing plant.

In 2001, we participated in a contest of exceptional coffee, and the farm obtained the ninth place at the national level. This opened the doors for us to export our coffee directly. We are now doing business with Portland Roasting, from the U.S.A., with Bless Coffee from South Korea, and with Coffee Bram from South Korea as well. We have installed a purification process in order to decontaminate the water runoff from the coffee bean processing and this prevents soil contamination.

I have my husband and my son who help me with all of labor that the cultivation of coffee entails, and together we try always going forward in spite of all of the problems that coffee growing implies. I have had many satisfactions in my life, but I also know pain, sorrow and sadness. When I went to the first seminar with the International Women Coffee Alliance (IWCA), I was just overcome of my daughter`s death and they helped me to take control of my life with more courage, to understand and help people in need. They gave me the strength to continue on my life and work on my farm.

Giving Women Resources

The International Women’s Coffee Alliance, or IWCA, focuses on developing skills, growing ideas, and transforming lives. We work with women at origin to create IWCA chapters within their countries, because when we stand together, we stand strong. These chapters become a refuge of ideas, training, education, and mentoring. By giving women a resource within their own community, the community itself is strengthened and becomes financially sustainable. Stability offers opportunities, community sharing breed’s ideas, and they in turn, become a resource for others.

I look forward to sharing more stories of Women in Coffee with you encourage you to become involved in one of the many organizations working hard to help make a difference in the lives women in coffee today.

Kelle Vandenberg is vice president of marketing for Pacific Bag, Inc., Woodinville, Wash., and has been involved with the IWCA since 2005. She may be reached at