By Katie, Home Coffee Expert
If you visit the coffee farms of East Africa, the first thing you will notice is the staggeringly beautiful landscapes. The second thing you will notice is that the majority of labor is performed by women. Twenty to thirty percent of African coffee farms are owned by women and women contribute seventy percent of the total labor in the global coffee farming industry. In this entry, we will look at how coffee is empowering women in Africa.
Empowering Rwandan women: from heartbreak to success
The Rwandan coffee industry is a recent success story with women leading the way from the outset. After the devastating genocide of 1994, which saw over 1 million people killed in 100 days, the country was torn apart in a way unimaginable to most of us. Traditionally, the men work the land for cash crops like coffee and the women farm the food. After the genocide, with a huge proportion of Rwandan men dead, in prison, or living in exile as refugees, the women had to come together and make peace in communities where neighbors had been killing each other just weeks prior. If they didn’t, they all could have faced starvation. Determined to go forward, Rwandan women took the helm and assumed leadership of numerous coffee farms. In doing so, these women battled the same patriarchal challenges faced in other countries but rather than cede to threats, Rwandan women joined forces to build a better future for themselves and for their country. One of the most fundamental steps Rwandan women took was to join coffee farms cooperatives. Today, some women have such high-performing farms that they can sell their coffee independently to prominent global roasters.
Rwandan coffee emphasizes quality, not quantity. Growing predominantly red bourbon trees, there is significant government investment in infrastructure and equipment with the aim of continuing to promote Rwandan coffee as some of the best in the world. In fact, 98% of Rwandan coffee is “specialty coffee”. Japan, a country known for its exacting coffee standards, is currently the largest importer of Rwandan specialty coffee.
Cultivating change for women coffee farmers in Ethiopia
Ethiopia has strong historical ties to coffee as it is the ancestral home of the coffee tree and culturally, coffee is very important. Coffee is the focal point of many social gatherings and there is even an elaborate coffee-making ceremony that dates back hundreds of years. As in many other coffee-growing countries, the growing of coffee is considered a “man’s job” even though women provide roughly 75% of the coffee farming labor. Despite doing disproportionate amounts of work to produce the coffee, women only receive 43% of the income earned. The main reason for this discrepancy is that women are primarily employed in farming, sorting, and washing whereas the men take control of sales and are representatives within the coffee cooperatives. In the rare instances where a woman owns the land that she farms, she still needs a man to help her sell the coffee. That said, programs have been established to encourage women’s participation in the decision-making processes within Ethiopian coffee farming. Husbands are encouraged to bring their wives to co-op meetings and to involve them in other parts of the farming process. As a result of these programs, woman’s participation in the co-ops has grown by 30% in the short time these programs have been running.
Ethiopia is the world’s 5th biggest coffee producer and the largest in Africa.
Women empowering change in Burundi’s coffee industry
Burundi is a tiny country, roughly the size of Maryland. Like many nations in East Africa, coffee is seen as a way out of poverty. For this reason, the Burundi government is promoting the establishment and growth of coffee farms and washing stations.
Women in Burundi are not allowed to own property and, under the current structure of the coffee industry, they cannot even be paid for their work. The International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), aware of this problem, works to ensure the purchase of any coffee grown by their 600 Burundi women chapter members provides payments to the women involved in the coffee’s production. In ensuring these women are fairly compensated for their produce and work, individual circumstances are improved and a voice is given to women in the Burundian coffee industry as a whole. In addition to IWCA initiatives, various other women empowerment initiatives have been founded in recent years with the aim of educating women in financial literacy and sustainable farming.
In recent years, the Burundian coffee industry has moved more towards specialty coffee. Production has decreased to 14,000 tonnes in 2018 from a high of over 200,000 tonnes in 2005. This move has had a positive impact on farmers as they receive a much higher price for their coffee and can focus on the specialty market.
Breaking down the patriarchy in Kenya
There are an estimated 700,000 coffee growers in Kenya. In 2019, these growers produced 715,000 60kg bags of green coffee; this was a down year for Kenyan coffee growers in terms of yield. Traditionally in Kenya, a woman works on her father’s coffee farm until she is married. After marriage, she works on her husband’s coffee farm. The farm work takes up about 12 hours each day. In addition to her farm work, the woman is also expected to complete domestic duties such as collecting firewood, cooking, and cleaning. Organizations such as Technoserve are providing education to women farmers, teaching them to work more efficiently, collaboratively, and sustainably to achieve better yields from their coffee trees.
Through education, cooperation, increased efficiency, and joining cooperatives, women are able to assume leadership roles in the community and attain financial independence. It will take a long time to alter the patriarchal culture prevalent in Kenya but with over a third of leadership roles in Kenyan coffee cooperatives now held by women, each year they take steps to assume a bigger hand in the decisions affecting their farms and lives.
Empowering choice for women coffee farmers in Uganda
Ugandan coffee accounts for 22% of the nation’s exports. Sixty percent of exported coffee goes to Europe and just six percent heads to North America. Throughout Uganda, one finds a good mix of robusta, which is indigenous to this part of Africa and grown in the lowland areas, and arabica which is grown in the mountains. Most women coffee farmers in Uganda are either widows or divorced, tend to come from very challenging backgrounds, and are not afforded a seat at the table in the same way as their male counterparts.
Women do most of the farming but when it comes to decision-making and sharing out the profits, they are left out. Organizations throughout the country are focused on empowering women with the aim of promoting women in decision-making roles and providing education on best farming practices. These organizations also provide training in other areas for women who work the coffee farms, such as in tailoring and other skills that give them the ability to achieve financial independence.
Our role in empowering women in coffee
Empowering the women involved in the production of our morning cup of coffee isn’t just the responsibility of a few foundations and programs; it is also the responsibility of consumers. It is critical that we, as coffee consumers, demand transparency in the supply chain of our coffee and that we choose to buy ethical coffee from those who purchase their beans from reputable producers. That may mean paying a bit more for your coffee but the reward is unquantifiable: a great tasting cup and the knowledge that you helping women growers receive the proceeds of their work.
1. International Coffee Organization, September 2018, “Gender Equality in the Coffee Sector: An insight report from the International Coffee Organization” [online], http://www.ico.org/documents/cy2017-18/icc-122-11e-gender-equality.pdf
2. Starbucks Reserve, “Extraordinary Women: Rwanda” [online], https://www.starbucksreserve.com/en-us/articles/extraordinary-women-rwanda
3. AgriLogic for the CBI (Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries), July 2018, “Value Chain Analysis for the Coffee Sector in Rwanda” [online], https://www.cbi.eu/sites/default/files/cbi_vca_rwanda_coffee.pdf
4. Nespresso, January 2017, “Empowering Women Coffee Farmers in Ethiopia” [online], https://nestle-nespresso.com/news/Empowering-women-coffee-farmers-in-Ethiopia
5. Knoema, “Burundi – Green coffee production quantity” [online], https://knoema.com/atlas/Burundi/topics/Agriculture/Crops-Production-Quantity-tonnes/Coffee-production#:~:text=In%202018%2C%20coffee%20production%20for,at%2014%2C216%20tonnes%20in%202018.
6. USDA, June 2020, “Coffee Annual: Kenya” [online], https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/Report/DownloadReportByFileName?fileName=Coffee%20Annual_Nairobi_Kenya_05-15-2020#:~:text=FAS%2FNairobi%20forecasts%20that%20Kenya%27s,%2Dended%20January%20%E2%80%93%20April%20period.
As coffee consumers, what’s the easiest way to support women in the coffee industry?
Thank you for commenting! The best way to support women in coffee is to purchase from ethical roasters. Most good roasters put a great deal of time into choosing their coffee, including which farms they wish to work with. Most also pay market or above-market for their beans to ensure workers, most of which are women, receive equitable and fair compensation. If you have any questions, you can also contact your local roaster to see where they purchase and / or contact farms you wish to support and learn where you can purchase their coffee in your area. I hope this helps!