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The cost of a cup of coffee


On our Learning Tours to El Salvador, we've spent a morning walking the mountainside with Fatima, an illiterate single mother of four young children. She lives in Las Americas, a village where coffee production is the main source of income for most of the people.


Our walk with Fatima is a morning stroll for us – during the coffee picking season, it is anything but that for her. She's up at the crack of dawn, packs a lunch of tortillas and rice, and goes to her assigned part of the plantation to begin picking. By law, the workers are signed on for 15-day periods, out of which they work 12 days (no work on Sundays – and the owner makes sure to include three). From November to as late as February, they rise early and pick all day. Only the ripe (red) beans are picked off each stem on a bush, so it's a tedious process.  And it takes about 4000 coffee beans to make a pound of roasted coffee.

[In the most poignant moment of our visit, Fatima pantomimes strapping a 100 pound sack of coffee around her forehead and crawling up the slope on all fours, something she has to do during the picking season. She doesn't weigh 100 pounds herself, but she is tough as nails. "If I'm sick or not working, my family survives on tortillas and salt."]


How much do they earn for picking the second most-traded commodity in the world (after petroleum)? They're paid $3 to $5 per 100 pounds, which can take all day. (And lest we think “things are cheaper down there,” a chicken costs $7.00; a pound of beans $1.00.)


How much can a coffee shop earn from 100 pounds of coffee? Her 100 pounds becomes 85 pounds of roasted beans. Starbucks makes 75 cents or so per cup in profit. At 60 cups per pound...well, do the math. Around $4000?


When asked about the wages and the way the workers are treated, Fatima responded, “No, it's not fair,” with a look of disdain often seen on the faces of women around the world in similar situations. “I can hardly feed my children and keep them in school. But what choice do I have.”

That's what we at NCP call “the economics of desperation” – a job, but not a job with dignity or opportunity. And few if any other options.

NCP has worked with local partners in Fatima's community to provide microloans for women to start small businesses, bringing a decent income, a sense of autonomy, and options - all of which are often all too rare in places like this.

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