Near the end of the rainy season, two women cross the muddy earthen road and enter a lush garden. Rosa Amelia Centeno Centeno, 52, leads agronomist Mariela Zamora to the hillside location beneath the rainforest canopy where young coffee trees gain a foothold in the rich, black earth.
A satisfied smile spreads on the farmer's face as she pushes aside waxy jade-green leaves to reveal branches festooned with hundreds of thumbnail-size fruit of one of the most popular commodities in the world.
Once the plant is old enough, two to three years, the Catura Arabica cherries will take about 35 weeks to bear export-quality beans. They could appear on the shelves of U.S. and other markets.
"The coffee is shade grown and is of the quality that we can export it to the U.S. and is organic and fair trade certified," Rosa explains.
Nine years ago Rosa and four other women set out to change their own lives and make better lives for their children. Leaving behind jobs as hired coffee cultivators and harvesters, they started their own collective with some help from Fundacion Entre Mujeres (Foundation Among Women or La FEM), a local organization that empowers women in agriculture.
To get them started, Fundacion Entre Mujeres donated a little more than 52 acres of land suitable for farming in the Jacote community in Esteli department in northeastern Nicaragua.
The Fundacion Entre Mujeres (La FEM) coffee cooperative first appeared on Catholic Relief Services' fair trade radar through the help of our partner, Just Coffee in Madison, Wisconsin. Just Coffee is a 100 percent fair trade company committed to a better way of trading and to building real relationships with their grower-partners.
You can order La FEM coffee at their website: http://justcoffee.e-beans.net/coffees/detail.php?c=7&s=Nica-Las
Please type "CRS" in the promo code field of Just Coffee's order form and a percentage of your purchase will be donated to our CRS Fair Trade Fund.
To learn more about the La FEM coffee cooperative, watch this video featuring Juanita Villareyna and Rosa Jimenez, two members of La FEM.
"Now we have [7 acres] of coffee, and the rest for basic grains, beans, corn, jicama and animal production," Rosa says.
Next, the foundation gave the women the tools they needed for success.
"The FEM has been giving us training, especially how to control for consistent quality and how to produce organic fertilizer," says Rosa.
Now they not only are able to better provide for their families but have more control over their own lives. "In the past we only knew how to cultivate, how to cut the coffee, but we worked for others," Rosa says.
"Now we are owners."
Although Fundacion Entre Mujeres has made a real difference in the lives of these and other women in the region, the foundation's resources were limited. Then, in 2007, Catholic Relief Services began organizing a new program they realized would be a perfect fit for the La FEM beneficiaries. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the program was known as ACORDAR (short for Alliance to Create Opportunities for Rural Development Through Agro-enterprise Relationships).
The program, explains CRS international fellow Renee Lambert, helps Nicaraguan farmers overcome technical shortcomings and take advantage of emerging markets. But there is more to it than that. The program also plans to "promote gender equity, by having women actively involved, so that they are no longer the passive participants of bringing income into the family, but rather are participating in the decision-making of the household."
Lambert says that working with Fundacion Entre Mujeres was a "purposeful move to increase women's involvement in agribusiness activities and to increase women's access to credit and assistance with small businesses."
ACORDAR donated 11,300 coffee plants to be divided among 18 women in the cooperative that contains Rosa's collective group. The plants allow the women to "expand the area in which we are growing coffee, [eventually] bringing more income to our families," Rosa explains.
She says that because coffee takes several years to fully produce harvestable cherries, "we hope that we will see an increase in income, but it is too early to see the benefits."
Meanwhile ACORDAR and Fundacion Entre Mujeres prepare the ground for successful harvesting, Rosa says. "FEM gave us training in proper use of the wet mill, training on commercialization, while also connecting us with technical exchanges to learn from other coffee growers' experiences."
This includes building a new wet mill that will process coffee more efficiently. A wet mill crushes the coffee cherries and then uses water to separate the fruit from the coffee bean.
While working directly with La FEM, Rosa understands the impact of CRS' involvement. "The members of the co-op know how CRS is supporting the FEM and through those increased resources we are learning more and increasing our capabilities and we will be able to earn more by producing more coffee."
Rick D'Elia is a freelance photographer and writer. He has documented CRS projects in Cambodia, Rwanda and Uganda. On his most recent trip he visited CRS programs in Brazil and Nicaragua.