A business system creator with a big heart uses her skills to help smallholder coffee farmers


As Board Chair, Charlene (back row, right) has been leading Food 4 Farmers’ successful growth over the past two years.

F4F: How does Food 4 Farmers relate to your background in the coffee industry?

CL: I think Food 4 Farmers relates to anyone who works in coffee. In the coffee industry, you become aware of the many people actually engaged in coffee farming, and the many families and lives dependent on it. Coffee touches more people than almost any other commodity in the world. I personally feel there is an obligation to ensure that suppliers can live a good life and are receiving a fair share of the profits. The question is, how can we be a fair partner? In the early days of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters — now Keurig — there was a focus on coffee farmers and a commitment to sharing their story with the world. I was introduced to all of this at Green Mountain, and I wanted to participate and work with farmers to help them achieve their goals.

F4F: What was your focus in the 16 years you worked at Green Mountain Coffee?

CL: My focus was on the financial side. I analyzed products and customer profitability, and I did budgeting and forecasting – the nuts and bolts of finance, the business side of coffee. My job was to help leadership understand what was behind those costs. When the team came in and wanted to spend more money for Fair Trade, I wanted to understand what that meant beyond just the financial impact. Understanding the big picture was a way for me to connect with what I think is the core part of the coffee business.

F4F: What would you say your professional specialty is?

CL: Financial connections between strategy and execution is the space I play in. I work on business process, to make things work efficiently and effectively while fitting with the financials. This helps the strategies and goals of a company to be well executed and get good financial results. Working on these types of issues, I also get to be involved in a lot of different areas of the company. I’ve supported sales and marketing, developed retailer programs, analyzed profitability of services, and put together promotional activities that drive revenue.

F4F: Coming from a financial systems perspective, what motivated you to get involved with organizations that work with coffee communities?

CL: I’ve done work with a few different organizations. I was involved with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance for a while, and stepped away from it after four or five years. But I missed the purpose and connection with coffee growing communities. I wanted to have a direct connection and impact, so when Rick Peyser approached me about Food 4 Farmers, I thought – that is exactly what I want to do. What appeals to me about the approach of Food 4 Farmers is that we don’t go into a community and say, “Here’s what we do.” It’s one that acknowledges community members and respects their abilities to find their own solutions, with some support. We work to build capacity within those communities, to not only help with food security, but in helping stabilize families, communities and coffee co-ops.

F4F: How do you use your expertise at Food 4 Farmers?

CL: I help with capacity building within our own organization. As we grow, I’ve been leading our efforts to put a strong organizational framework with financial plans in place that are secure, and organize efficient and effective ways to do our work. It’s the same kind of work I was doing at Green Mountain.

F4F: How does Food 4 Farmers fit into the landscape of the coffee industry?

I see us as an advocate for strengthening the supply chain for the industry, and as an ongoing resource for farmers. We can help build bridges for companies that want to take action. We have the mechanisms to tell them what they can do, how they can do it and help them get it done. We basically serve as an outsource function for companies who want to accomplish their social responsibility goals. Working so closely in coffee communities, we share the voices of the coffee farmers by talking about what we are seeing and hearing. What is working, what is not, what can we do better? Food 4 Farmers is so collaborative; we are focused on building a network based on partnerships. We know these issues are complex and one organization alone is not going to solve them. Creating partnerships means we can have a stronger impact within those communities and tackle a range of factors that strengthen food security.

F4F: Why is food security such a difficult problem?

CL: There isn’t any one single issue that causes food insecurity. There are many: the timing of the harvest, coffee leaf rust and other diseases, water, infrastructure, education, leadership, the list goes on. We try to find the lever that is most valuable in terms of creating positive change within each community, but elements of all those issues need to be addressed for lasting solutions. The lack of food security is a symptom. There is often a web of other issues that can be addressed to get at the core problems.

F4F: Where do you see Food 4 Farmers’ strength?

CL: We don’t bring a predetermined solution to each community. We have recommendations and ideas, but we work with the community to help them figure out what can work for them in the long term. It puts the ownership on the community. They co-design the program, and we are there to make sure they have the right tools and knowledge, and help correct course when needed. It creates a dialogue instead of a lecture.

F4F: What are your hopes for Food 4 Farmers?

CL: We want to figure out the best way to have a positive impact. I hope we will share our approach with other organizations and expand our template, so more people can benefit from our learning and take their own action to approach some of these same issues in coffee-growing communities. Overall, we would like to see far fewer families face food insecurity. The hard part is that there is so much to do, and we’ve hardly scratched the surface.