Reflections on 2018: Interview with IWCA Chapter Manager, Blanca Castro

Interview by Emmy Grace, IWCA volunteer

Although 2018 may be coming to a close, but for some coffee countries the harvest season is just beginning. The world of coffee never sleeps and that’s especially true of IWCA’s global network – with chapters around the world in different time zones and coffee cycles in different hemispheres, there are always hands at work. That’s in large part thanks to Blanca Castro, IWCA Chapter Manager. With years of insight and relationship building, Blanca has been instrumental in supporting IWCA chapters over the years in achieving the (literal) fruits of their labor. With this year being one of reflection, review and revision for the IWCA Global leadership team, there’s no better person to look back on 2018 than Blanca.

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EG: IWCA began its work in 2003 with women from the US, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. As of 2018, how many formal IWCA chapters are there? Any new ones that joined this year?

BC: There is an IWCA formal presence in 22 countries through established IWCA Chapters and no new additions this year. That’s because this year we concentrated on reviewing and updating important documents, such as the IWCA Chapter Formation Protocol, that had last been updated in 2011, and creating a new IWCA Code of Conduct based on our organizational values. The coffee industry is constantly changing, so it was vital that we updated these foundational documents to be sure that IWCA Global delivers the best support to the chapters and sets clear expectations. We decided to spend more time on strengthening this aspect of chapter relations before bringing on new chapters right now – we’re not closing the doors, but rather ensuring we have an even more solid foundation for current and existing chapters. We are also currently working to support groups in 14 additional countries in their efforts to form IWCA chapters, hopefully next spring.

EG: What is one of the biggest changes that happened this year?

BC: IWCA Global has been extremely lucky to have the current president, Kellem Agnew Emanuele, dedicate 100% of her time to IWCA. As a volunteer-run organization, it’s a challenging feat to balance personal and career obligations on top of the ever-evolving and growing IWCA network. Having Kellem onboard made me realize that IWCA has become a bigger and bigger platform, and it’s gaining traction in the coffee industry. For example, this year I was invited to the first Pu’er Specialty Coffee Forum in China to represent IWCA. We were considered global leaders at the same level as organizations such as the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and the International Coffee Organization (ICO). That was a real eye-opener. Because of that, now more than ever we need a structure that can deliver, so focusing on our foundation documents this year was extremely important and useful.

EG: As IWCA has grown and evolved over the past 15 years, what do you think makes IWCA unique?

BC: IWCA has grown so much – I don’t think that when the initial founders started IWCA 15 years ago that they knew what it would become. What makes IWCA unique is that it gathers groups of women involved in coffee from around the world throughout the whole value chain, being mindful to reach marginalized, rural, and indigenous women.

Coffee is tricky – it has provided a lot of opportunities and it’s easy to romanticize it, but it’s also been the basis of a lot of struggle. The chapters have very localized issues that they centralize their work around to be a collective force. The common denominator for the groups is that they are all mothers, daughters and workers and share many of the same challenges around the world, not just specific to coffee, such as the price of coffee but the also laws and customs that make women earning a dignified living that much more of a challenge. These groups aren’t the big shots in the coffee industry, but groups of dedicated women that meet the chapter requirements and allow them to be empowered to make an impact. And while the focus is on women in coffee, men are involved as well as they need to be part of the conversation. The groups have a ripple effect and influence their communities, families and businesses.

EG: What notable global partnerships developed this year?

BC: We formed several great relationships this year. In particular, we signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the International Coffee Organization (ICO). Although IWCA has been a member of the ICO Private Sector Consultative Board for several years, through this MOU, IWCA and ICO now have a formal partnership to work together to strengthen the coffee sector and ensure that women have a seat at the table. We also had lots of support from independent coffee shops and roasters that organized activities and fundraisers within their own businesses to support IWCA. This was a great way to bring together coffee communities, particularly coffee consuming communities in the US and Europe, as it’s just as important to be reaching and educating the end consumer in addition to big industry.

EG: What surprised you most this year?

BC: I think just the overwhelming amount of opportunities and needs that exist, which is both overwhelming and exciting. We have 14 new countries that are in the chapter formation process to join this network, and there are more women that we want to support. I always imagine that there’s a big ocean of coffee and IWCA is a little boat that wants to reach other coasts – we need to upgrade our little boat to a ship to be able to reach more chapters and provide a strong structure.

EG: How did you celebrate International Coffee Day?

BC: This year’s International Coffee Day theme was “Women in Coffee”, so in preparation for this day we created a series of case studies from IWCA chapters to highlight their work and recognize recent chapter accomplishments and the local impact they make. It was a busy day for IWCA chapters organizing various events across the globe, but I was able to start it with a nice cup of coffee. In my home I have a little café of coffee from around the world thanks to all of the wonderful connections and friends that I’ve met. It’s been such a gift to be able to share the coffee and the stories behind each one every time I prepare coffee at home or have friends over.

EG: What do you hope to see in 2019?

BC: I hope to provide the current chapters a stronger structure with the revised documents that we worked on this year, particularly when it comes to developing project proposals. Chapters are formed with specific goals and issues in mind, and project proposals can help chapters achieve those goals ranging from skills training to improved infrastructure, while also strengthening leadership skills. Through this solid foundation, the chapters will be better able to accomplish their projects by being well equipped with clear goals and expectations.

EG: How can people support IWCA in 2019?

BC: IWCA welcomes financial donations and volunteers. We are constantly working to evolve our committees and welcome people that can provide support with knowledge and networking. Supporters can also contribute to specific countries and projects.

EG: What would you like to share with the IWCA network?

BC: I really admire everyone’s efforts and dedication to IWCA Global and at the chapter level from the current and past boards to the friends and supporters that I’ve met along the way. IWCA really is special.

A selection of events from 2018: