When Andrea Lopez left her small community in the remote Amazon region of Ecuador to study, her family advised her not to come back. “There’s no future in the countryside,” they said.
But Lopez did come back, and she brought the future with her.
Lopez is a co-founder of Witoca, an artisanal coffee company. Witoca is on a mission to bring Ecuador’s Robusta coffee beans to the world, grown by farmers using traditional environmental permaculture techniques and receiving a fair price for their high quality product. A trained and certified expert in coffee quality, Lopez has a second mission in mind: showing her fellow farmers and the children of the region that they have an economic future in their own communities and demonstrating, and for girls especially, that they can be leaders in their community and in the world of coffee.
Lopez, who is part Indigenous Kichwa on her mother’s side, left her rural home to attend high school an hour away in the town of Puyo. An excellent student, she won a university scholarship to study finance. Coming out of university, she worked for a cultural research institute for four years, until she realized what she really wanted to do was return home and make a difference for Amazonian communities.
At university, Lopez had met her life partner and future business partner Fabio Legarda. He suggested they go into coffee as a way to create opportunity for community members. Although her grandfather had grown coffee, Lopez knew little about the trade. So, she threw herself into study—reading on the internet, learning from farmers, and eventually signing up for a government training program.
Today, Lopez is a “cupper.” As of 2018, she is trained and certified in the internationally recognized Q-grading system for coffee—the first female Q-Grade Cupper in the region. Q Graders like Lopez are the sommeliers of the coffee world. They assess factors like the smell, taste, and colour of roasted coffees, describe them using a common universal terminology, and assign a score for quality that will be accepted by coffee purchasers anywhere.
Women play a vital role in the world of coffee growing, tending to coffee bushes on a daily basis. But as is all too common around the world, while they do much of the labour, they reap little of the economic returns and are excluded from decision-making. In the traditional coffee plantations of the Ecuadorian Amazon, this is very much the case. That’s why one of Lopez’ goals with the Witoca project is to help local women increase their knowledge and develop self-confidence as farmers and entrepreneurs.
“Women are starting to speak up more. In the past this was not common. There was not an opportunity for women to participate,” says Lopez. “But there are many women in coffee. Especially if we talk about quality coffee, where you can see women playing important roles.”
As co-founder of Witoca, Lopez is the living role model of that for the women and girls of the region, showing what women can accomplish. And Lopez believes that if Witoca is to deliver a high-quality product and grow into a successful business, involving women is vital.
“Details, quality, being meticulous in every step of the process—all these are guaranteed when there are women participating,” she insists.
When it does become successful, and Witoca is bringing greater income to the region, the participation of women will also be essential in ensuring that translates into real growth and prosperity for communities.
“The new income that comes from quality, it must also get into the hands of women who are the ones that are going to invest in the family.”
That’s not just Lopez’ opinion. Research in vulnerable communities around the world has borne out that when women are income earners, they invest 90 per cent of their income back into their family for the health and education of their children—boys and girls equally. There is a proven multiplier effect: when one woman is empowered to lift herself out of poverty, she brings at least four others with her.
For now, Lopez and Legarda are focusing on building the capacity of Witoca in every part of the value chain.
“It is important children in the community can see that coffee not only is harvested and shipped, but it is also being processed, there’s somebody tasting it, serving it. So now they can see themselves doing that and dream about working in different areas of production,” says Lopez.
And bit by bit, those children are coming to see a future that doesn’t require leaving home behind.
“There’s an impact here that is silent, slow, but it is seeping through the new generations.”