How Coffee Can Change the World

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on February 26, 2013.

Coffee’s capacity to create social equality and alleviate poverty is based on two key factors — its ability to connect developing (producers) and developed (consumers) countries, and the sheer volume of people who are employed by it. Conservative estimates show that number to be around 30 million people worldwide, but when considering the quality of census data and the downstream jobs created by coffee, it’s realistically closer to 125 million people worldwide with a dependence on coffee for income.

The caliber of development and social projects that are financed, initiated, and executed by coffee companies and their employees is nothing short of a small miracle. In this “How Coffee Can Save the World” series of blog posts, I hope to write of many of the projects and stories that exemplify the coffee industry’s commitment to changing the world for the better.

The first organization I’ll draw your attention to is Grounds for Health — an international non-profit organization that works to eradicate cervical cancer from the coffee growing communities in Nicaragua, Mexico, Peru, and Tanzania. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fundraising for the organization for the past 5 years, have traveled to Nicaragua with them as a volunteer and photographer, and as of last June, am a member of their Board of Directors.)


Grounds for Health’s mission ostensibly has very little to do directly with coffee itself. Cervical cancer is not a cancer that specifically attacks coffee farm workers, but it is often the number one cause of cancer-related deaths for women in developing countries — which is where all coffee grows — due solely to lack of access to prevention and treatment. Grounds for Health uses the structure of coffee co-ops to overcome barriers, organize women, and bring them together for testing, pre-cancer treatment, and awareness.

The group was founded by Dan Cox, a coffee professional who took a doctor friend of his to Oaxaca, Mexico with him years ago while on a buying trip. Doctor Fote visited a local medical clinic while Dan was visiting with co-op members and immediately realized that cervical cancer, caused exclusively by a common sexually transmitted disease called HPV, was the biggest health issue that people of Oaxaca faced. This form of cancer — one of the most easily detected, preventable, AND treatable — was robbing the co-ops of its women, who were, as women always are, an integral part of the fabric of the community: the mothers, wives, farm workers, homemakers, and advocates for education and healthcare for the community’s children.


Dan and Dr. Fote set out to make a difference, and with initial funding from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, created an organization that establishes connections between the coffee industry and healthcare providers to fund and facilitate their cervical cancer prevention programs.

Since 1996, Grounds for Health has grown and adapted immensely. With more than 200 coffee companies supporting their work around the world, the organization still sets up screening clinics with the help of their staff, volunteers, local healthcare providers and nurses, and coffee co-ops as part of their effort to train local doctors and nurses in a simple, life-saving technique.


Initially using a standard pap smear, which is still the primary test for cervical cancer screening in developed countries, there were complications due to the need for proper reading of the slides by a cytologist, and crucial follow-up that was difficult to organize. So in 2004, under the guidance of their executive director, August Burns, Grounds for Health adopted a single-visit, screen-and-treat approach, using Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) — a process so extraordinarily simple that the resulting effect comes as no surprise. Using $.25 worth of materials — white vinegar, a cotton swab, and a good light — well-trained professionals are able to detect lesions on the cervix that denote the presence of HPV. With cryotherapy, carefully applied nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide, the lesion can be removed, which prevents the onset of full-blown cervical cancer at an 85 percent success rate.

When considering the low-cost of inspection per woman, the importance of the single-visit approach, and the use of co-ops to get organized, it is no surprise that Grounds for Health has screened over 40,000 women since their inception and prevented hundreds of instances of a cancer that, in a developing country, is almost certainly a death sentence. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of their clinics for myself, outside of Jinotega, Nicaragua, and it is an impressive sight, not just in terms of the sense of community, volunteerism, and efficiency with which they run, but also in terms of the sense of empowerment and purpose it gives the women who are being screened and, in some cases, saved. It’s a powerful thing.


Grounds for Health didn’t develop VIA, but has been one of its biggest proponents over the past decade. Through their good work, they have helped the method become official policy for cervical cancer prevention in Nicaragua and Tanzania, and they are working with the World Health Organization to update international guidelines. At the same time, they have also expanded their work to Peru and are exploring new program sites in East Africa, all with a tremendous amount of support for their work both inside and out of the coffee industry.

It never ceases to inspire me to think that the coffee industry as a whole, warts and all, has been wise enough and proactive enough to recognize the importance of empowered, strong, and healthy women as a cornerstone of coffee-growing communities. Grounds for Health is just one example of how that vision is slowly, but surely, becoming a reality.