Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Fátima Ismael Espinoza

“Let’s do coffee!”

A phrase that has permeated all aspects of my life and one that will probably be etched into my epitaph.

I don’t drink alcohol and thus, coffee is special to me – it is the centrepiece to enthusiastic or difficult conversations with friends, it is the ice-breaker in a business meeting, it is the first opportunity to engage with an interviewee and it is a vehicle to banish tiredness when writing essays. But coffee is subtle, it compliments a moment rather than loudly arguing its presence. Perhaps it’s because of this silence that I rarely have given much thought to the many hands that are responsible for the beverage. Of course, I know about Fairtrade and how it provides greater equality to an industry that is often taken for granted but I couldn’t ever name someone working within. Unfortunately, that distance has led me to be complacent but a recent meeting with Fátima Ismael Espinoza has completely changed me.

Fátima is the General Manager of Soppexcca, a union of 18 cooperatives located in Jinotega in northern Nicaragua where 60% of the country’s coffee is produced. Fátima visited Dublin as part of ‘The World of Coffee’ event hosted by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe and Fairtrade Ireland. Fátima is one of the first women to reach a senior position in coffee production in Nicaragua and since taking the helm Soppexcca has grown to 650 members, 210 of them women (32%).

Fátima gave me a new perspective on power, confidence, management techniques and of course, coffee. I think you’ll be very impressed by her.


How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

I’m a normal, everyday woman and growing up, my interest was primarily in the agricultural sector. That humble interest developed into having an ambition and a vision to help improve the coffee production of small rural farming families in my locality. This idea of authentic community interaction has been intrinsic to my professional and personal life but I must confess, the fact that I am a manager of a cooperative of small scale producers is more of an accident than any particular ambition to be in a position of authority. I like the simple and quiet life – or at least, I did [laughs].

How did you first become involved in the landscape of coffee?

I was first involved with the coffee community with Nicaragua’s Literacy Crusade in 1980/1981 – A programme which aimed to reduce illiteracy in rural Nicaraguan communities. The Sandanistan government had just come into power and the Literacy Crusade or the National Literacy Strategy was one of the first pieces of legislation put forward under their guidance. I was very concerned that between 75%-90% of adults and children in rural Nicaragua were illiterate and felt very strongly that the policy should come to fruition.

In that era, was there much division between the men and women who worked in the coffee industry?

Traditionally, Nicaragua’s coffee industry has always been in the hands of men, especially roles of seniority such as sales and marketing. This mirrored many other types of labour as business of any sort was considered a male domain. However, women have always been involved in the production of coffee but they were simultaneously responsible to care for their children and to look after the home. Women were somewhat othered within the coffee industry – their role was to be invisible and to be silent. The Sandinista revolution brought about change as all of a sudden, women were entitled to own land, to have a voice and systemic oppressions began to recede.

With the political noose loosening, did you face many societal challenges in encouraging women to take on leadership roles?

There were multiple challenges and if I’m honest, forty years later, we are still faced with many obstacles. The greatest hindrance continues to be the lack of education and illiteracy among women as we are selfless, we prioritise our family over any needs that we might have. Some of that might stem from society’s view of women as even today in Nicaragua, a woman in a senior position in business provokes questions and often they are not considered reliable – even by other women. Those who work in these nouveau roles are often critiqued and made feel inherently guilty for not choosing to wholly dedicate their time to family. However, we need to stop viewing our work through a singular lens – labour which only impacts one woman – instead, we should perceive it as adding to the visibility and equality of all women.

With such dense political and social constructs, were you nervous taking on the role of General Manager at Soppexcca?

I was afraid. I was very afraid. I didn’t want to let anyone down and had a huge desire to meet the farmers’ high expectations. I must confess though, I was nervous that others would perceive my role as somewhat tokenistic. I worked tirelessly to climb the professional ladder but because of the way that women were viewed, I was conscious that some would think that my post was a gift to balance the scales. It was not, I deserve my positioned and it fuelled my belief that women working at the highest levels of coffee production cannot be a trend. It cannot be en vogue for this year or this decade, the coffee industry must be sustainable, transformative and fair. It’s that transformative aspect that encourages me to continue working as now in Nicaragua, the protagonists are women – they are independent, powerful and skilled. They are transforming their own lives.

Do you notice any change in how you are treated when you work abroad?

My work is validated and I’m treated with a tangible respect. They innately understand the importance of my work. They are curious too and often question me on the environment, economic and social implications that impact on our co-operatives. Recognition is so freely given – it is contagious.

Fairtrade has existed in Ireland for two decades but what concrete impact has this initiative had on farmers, such as those in rural Nicaragua?

It has created enormous opportunities – particularly for women. It has gifted them an unmissable confidence. Fairtrade has also established a brand that represents unparalleled quality but simultaneously, it outlines a number of responsibilities and standards which employers must adhere to. It encourages transparency, democracy and authentic participation. It was fundamental to Soppexcca establishing our policy on gender equality – a mechanism to protect and promote all workers.

With such attention being paid to the narrative of women in coffee, are you conscious that these individuals could be painted as victims?

Absolutely. There are many companies broadcasting their mantra of women in coffee and often, it feels like a publicity stunt, rather than a desire to include and empower women. However, it’s a difficult balance as we too require media attention and publicity for sales but we make a conscious effort to ensure that women tell their own stories – if they want to, of course – and do our utmost to never speak for them. We try to ensure that they harness and own their individual power.

If you could speak to wider society about the benefits of such a programme, what would you say?

In the past, coffee was merely part of our morning or lunchtime routines but today, it is at the centre of friendships, of business meetings and energetic conversations. The next time you grasp your hands around an aromatic cup of coffee, spend just a moment thinking about the origin of the product and the individuals who worked to ensure that it reached you. Particularly, think about the families that are benefiting from your choice – a choice which you might have given little consideration to.

We have spoken informally about your role in Soppexcca but as General Manager, what are your major responsibilities?

My first task each day is to check how the prices in the coffee markets have fluctuated overnight but my concern is always the well-being of the coffee-producers. I liaise with them to ensure that their concerns regarding credit, environmental and social issues are investigated. At the moment, we are very busy paying back the loans undertaken for last season’s harvest. However, my major responsibility is that the producers are satisfied and if not, we find a practical way to discover how that can improve. This is alleviated by the cooperative’s open-door policy – producers can visit and speak with me whenever they are in the vicinity. They can give out to me then too [laughs]. I’m also responsible for Soppexcca’s education and advocacy programme that emphasises the important of protagonist and the socio-psychological factors of coffee-production. It is vitally important but it has an economic cost that we hope to be able to sustain.

How has technology aided your role?

It has alleviated much of the time-pressure experienced by the coffee producers as if they had a grievance or a query, they had to travel miles from their mountainous homes to my office in town. The telephone has been an incredible development to our productivity and communication. It doesn’t matter what part of rural Nicaragua you are from – you will have access to a telephone, a cell phone or an SMS. Communication is constant [laughs]. However, the lack of internet access continues to be a problem. It would gift us time, democratise the process and it would alleviate costs but up to 90% of coffee producers in rural Nicaragua do not have internet access but it is improving. Slowly. Very slowly.

With the changing demographic of coffee producers, have you had to adapt your management style?

To be honest, I am much more of a facilitator than a manager. I have authority but I do not enforce it in a traditional way. My management style is conversationalist and I deliberately try to dissolve power relationships to encourage other women to come forward, to share their experiences and inevitably, to empower them to become involved in management roles. When I began my role in Soppexcca, I was an experiment, a guinea pig of sorts [laughs]. It’s great to be able to share that learning and experience with other women and it’s inspiring to see how that has changed. What once was an industry with only two female managers, now has women working in senior positions within the technology, governance and marketing aspects of coffee-production. It’s incredibly important to have women in those roles – for visibility, for confidence and to ensure that change is sustainable.

What have been the most fulfilling and challenging days at Soppexcca for you?

A huge number of days have been very satisfying but it is when it is when I see female producers managing to come out of debt and being in a position to grow economically and socially, that is when I feel most proud of what we have collectively achieved. Other days that compare are those when the sons and daughters of female producers graduate from school and listening to them speak about their desire to become nurses and teachers – it’s a gift – we have managed to build something. The sad days, though? Credit is a huge issue and the hardest days are often linked to how we can access finance. It’s also challenging when we undertake our health education programmes and we meet with a large number of women who are ill and suffering, particularly from cancer. It’s tough too when we discover that the price of coffee has hit rock bottom in the markets – we are afraid. What impact will it have on the amount of food that can be put on the table in our community? Finally, the uncertainty surrounding climate change is a huge concern and the real impact it could have on all aspects of our lives. We are spectators to so much social-convulsion at a worldwide level and unfortunately, we know that sooner or later, that’s going to have a negative impact on us. However, if we didn’t have those kind of problems, we would live an insipid life. The fear, concern and worry gives us great opportunity to revel in the wonderful moments [laughs].

Fairtrade has been in existence in Ireland for twenty years but what would you like to see change within the next two decades?

I would love to see Fairtrade as a vehicle to encourage more communication between the North and South of Nicaragua. I would like for the cooperatives and organisations involved in Fairtrade to have a louder voice in regards to political discussion and policy changes and finally, I would like to see the protagonism and education programmes that have occurred in Ireland to be replicated in a country like Nicaragua.

Thank you to Fátima for her time and wisdom. You can learn about Fátima’s work with Sopexcca, about the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe and Fairtrade Ireland.

Interview originally posted June 28, 2016

Sinead Burke