Samanta Urena Arauz, an agribusiness management graduate, could have launched a city career but chose instead to join a women-run coffee cooperative in her remote Costa Rican village that has changed her life and that of her neighbors.
Raised picking coffee beans before school, Arauz was brought up by a group of uneducated, rural women who broke into the coffee industry to provide a livelihood for themselves and their families and education and health care for the community.
The story of these uneducated but determined women is the subject of a documentary, “A Small Section of the World”, that has been screened at several film festivals and opened in New York this month.
“I am what I am because of coffee,” said Arauz, who now runs the coffee mill in Biolley, a small rural community in the scenic, lush Talamanca Mountains.
The venture dates back to 1997 when many of the men and boys of Biolley left to find work in the capital San Jose, a bone-jarring eight-hour drive away, or in the United States.
Left with meager resources, the women of Biolley decided to come up with a plan to support themselves and their families.
“The families were disintegrating and we had to do something,” said Ana Laura Quiros Montoya, who was abandoned by an alcoholic husband and had five young children to support.
About 30 women brainstormed for business ideas. Most had no experience but housekeeping and the village didn’t have much but it was in an area surrounded by coffee plantations.
So, Montoya said: “We thought, why not coffee?”
For while women-run coffee businesses were unusual at the time, women’s role in the coffee industry globally was not.
The International Women’s Coffee Alliance estimates 500 million people globally depend on coffee for their livelihoods and women do about 70 percent of that work but typically only own about 15 percent of the land, processing facilities and traded product.
“The big part of coffee production in many rural areas is in the hands of women,” said Arancha Gonzalez, executive director of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.
“It’s women who work in the fields. They harvest the coffee. They wash the coffee. They take the coffee to the market. But when the coffee gets to the market, it’s the man who cashes in the money for the crop.”
The women of Biolley were determined to change that.
They formed a partnership called ASOMOBI, or the Association of Organized Women of Biolley, one of the first women-run coffee operations in Costa Rica.
Initially they struggled to get support from any men in the village who did not like the women taking charge but after two partners donated some land, the men saw this was serious and some helped clear a site to build an ASOMOBI compound.
The women decided to roast dried coffee brought in by local farmers but there was a fundamental problem.
“We had no idea how to roast coffee,” said Hortencia Loria Sibaja, a silver-haired woman charged with running the roasting machine, laughing as she recalled burning the coffee at first.
The women also found that farmers’ inconsistent growing and drying methods produced abysmal results. When they sent a sample to Grace Mena, one of the few female coffee exporters in San Jose, she told them the coffee was terrible.
But they persisted. They acquired a mill and started to buy freshly picked, bright red coffee cherries from the farmers and processed them themselves, drying and roasting the beans.
The partners persuaded Mena to visit ASOMOBI who, having faced discrimination in the industry herself, decided to coach the women and take advantage of a growing demand for small-scale production of fine quality, specialty coffees.
When ASOMOBI finally achieved a fine coffee, Mena sent a sample to Italian coffee company illycaffe, which immediately bought it. It now buys 80 percent of ASOMOBI’s raw milled beans with the remainder processed into coffee and sold by the women.
“What I really love about working with them is that they put every penny back in the community,” said Mena, noting coffee money has built the community a new school and clinic.
As the business grew, the association realized it needed more than coffee due to the seasonal nature of the industry so opened an eco-tourism lodge and restaurant which accounted for 60 percent of its income until a fire burned it down in 2012.
“We can’t survive on coffee alone,” said Montoya’s daughter Ariana, a business administration graduate who returned to run ASOMOBI’s finances and is trying to raise funds for the lodge.
Illy discovered the ASOMOBI story through its visiting agronomists and offered to underwrite a documentary directed by Lesley Chilcott, whose previous independent documentaries included “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman”.
Singer Alanis Morissette, inspired by the women’s story, helped write the theme song, “The Morning”, for the documentary.
Chilcott described it as a tale of female empowerment.
“(Samanta) is the living embodiment of what the women wanted to achieve,” said Chilcott.