In the lush and isolated highlands of southern Peru, a region known as Incahuasi, meaning “House of the Incas,” one young woman, Habilia Vigoria Oyola, stands out. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are highlighting an outstanding woman who is working to support the dreams of a long-term coffee-producing cooperative and ally, San Fernando and break the mold by increasing gender equity in her community.
What sets Habilia (Haby) apart isn’t the fact that she is a woman. It is her desire to build up a generation of future leaders. She is passionate about involving young people, creating more resilient and sustainable ways to farm coffee, and making gender equity the norm.
Haby is the middle child of six, and the oldest of four girls. She is brave and adventurous– in fact, I first spent time with her when she spontaneously decided to go on a three-day backpacking trip to the looming peak behind Incahuasi’s native valley, a mountain by the name of Choquesafra (16,000 ft). She is also dedicated and studious. In addition to finishing up her undergraduate degree in Agricultural Engineering, she is also learning how to cup coffee, which is an important tool for empowerment for any cooperative. Cupping is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. (Read more about it here.)
In February 2019, I spent three days with Haby in a workshop focused on equipping trainers to disseminate the importance of capitalization. Workshop participants learned how to genuinely incentivize small-scale farmers to invest in their cooperatives- the main focus of this work being that no famer is too small or too poor to invest. (To learn more about that, read this or this). Haby is committed to San Fernando. She says “cooperative work is really nice. The more members we acquire means more support. We share knowledge and we … feel like a family with all the members of the cooperative.”
Haby’s parents are indigenous smallholder producers of coffee, supplying their crop to the San Fernando Cooperative. The recognition that all coffee farmers face controllable and uncontrollable challenges propelled Haby to pursue agricultural engineering. Over the course of her studies, Haby has witnessed all the difficulties in growing coffee and is proud to support their work by sharing all her learnings and ideas with her family and the cooperative. For example, her senior thesis work focuses on coffee pests and plagues, and she is hoping to put together model demonstration plots to share what a healthy plot or “chakra” should look like.
When I asked Haby how we could engage more female members of the community, her response was thorough: “By making women know their rights — that we are all equal, that we receive the same benefits from the cooperative.” According to Haby, the next step is to “create and strengthen institutions specialized in the field of gender equality, by promoting the participation of women in these areas.” In addition, she spoke of the importance of training people in leadership roles so that there’s a “mechanism for follow-up and monitoring of equality and gender equity in the cooperative.” None of this can happen, she says, without dedicating “resources for the proper functioning of this important work.” In her studies, she often found herself as the only woman in her cohort. Because of her experiences, she understands firsthand how difficult it can be to work in a role that people are used to seeing men fulfilling. She is dedicated to creating a new normal.
Haby has ambitious plans for the future. Her personal goal is to finish her agricultural engineering degree and focus on that career. She’d also like to grow speciality coffee on at plot of at least two hectares and to cultivate cacao varieties to experiment. As for the co-op, she hopes to see advances like an on-site processing plant and fully implemented cupping laboratory, as well as the production of biological controllers.
I know that Haby is just beginning to make her mark in the beautiful Incahuasi valley. Every time we part, I’m reminded of how genuine and powerful her enthusiasm is. Perhaps most importantly, she’s sending her community and co-op an important message: when you give youth and women the tools to succeed, they will start by giving back to their own community.