A growing effort between Elan Organic Coffees CEO Karen Cebreros and Foundation for Women founder Deborah Lindholm is shaping a brighter future for impoverished women by harnessing coffees as an engine to move needy women from poverty to economic stability and independence.
Inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner and economist Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has built a financial empire based on small loans to poor people in the belief that even the most economically disadvantaged can be reliable borrowers and capable entrepreneurs, Lindholm’s Foundation for Women extends “microloans” from $50 to $1,000 to help impoverished women locally and globally start their own businesses and become self-sustaining.
Lindholm founded her non-profit in 1997 after a visit to southern India where she witnessed first hand the power of microloans. One woman’s life had been changed by a four-dollar loan; in Lindholm’s words, “I met a woman who borrowed four dollars. She had never seen $4 in her life. She bought a comb, a pair of scissors and a mirror and she put her husband in business as a barber and became the cashier. Now she has a home and her children are in school. All because of $4.”
Deeply moved, Lindholm committed herself to helping impoverished women around the world leave poverty behind by providing them access to credit and an opportunity to start generating income.
Though each loan to enterprising third world women may amount to small sums, it takes a great deal of money to be in the money-lending business. Fortunately for the Foundation for Women, Lindholm met Elan CEO Karen Cebreros at a World Trade Center gathering in 2008. Joining forces was perhaps a foregone conclusion; in addition to single-handedly shaping the global certified organic and sustainability movements in coffee, Cebreros at Elan has ever been a champion of women in all aspects of the coffee trades. Since its founding in 1989, Elan has sought to identify and build relationships with growers, millers and exporters of superior coffees throughout Central America, India, Indonesia and Africa—many of whom are women.
The statistics are compelling. Coffee is the second largest-selling commodity—after oil—in the world. Half of the world’s population of 3.5 billion people sustain themselves on less than $2 a day. Seventy percent of this population are women and children. Coffees sourced by Elan from womens’ co-op farms in Costa Rica, India, Ethiopia and Rwanda—all of it certified organic and suitably named the Microloan Blend—are sold by the Foundation for Women, with proceeds funding microloans to women in San Diego as well as Liberia.
Microloans require no collateral but must be paid back with a small interest rate. Ironically, the women most often denied traditional lines of credit through banks in third-world countries, have a 98% repayment rate of their microloans. From Ethiopia’s only female coffee miller and exporter to a San Diegan refugee mother of two who recently started her own cleaning business, the extension of small sums has enabled the recipients to establish a credit history, maintain families and create money-earning businesses that in turn enrich recipients’ families, neighborhoods, communities and nations.
Since its inception, the Foundation for Women has touched one million lives around the world with its microloan programs in San Diego, Tami Nadu, India; and Liberia, Niger, and Zambia, Africa. Their collaborative projects often involve working closely with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local communities, and heads of state to provide much needed credit, support groups, business education, children’s schools, medical care, and training to the poorest of the poor. In 2006, Lindholm established connection with Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. There, the Foundation for Women is a registered NGO and is operating 27 microloan programs in seven counties with over 1000 women borrowers with a 98% repayment rate.
Unlike charity, which may create dependence, microloans are provided to create independence. The providers of microloans feel that initial small line credit should be a human right and that empowering women is not only compassionate, but socially responsible—and good business.
Today, Microloan Blend women’s coffee has been sold primarily at Foundation for Women fundraisers, events, farmer’s markets, and website. It is often the featured (and most consumed) coffee of choice at Women’s events such as the International Women’s Breakfast and the Microfinance Summit held at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice. The powerful grassroots efforts behind the coffee and the cause took it all the way to the United Nations (UN) meeting in New York City on July 2. Current efforts are to expand and sell Microloan Blend retail to increase proceeds for more microloans and bring greater awareness and support to women’s issues globally. A variety of coffees, including an espresso and decaf are available.