March 16, 2016

8 Steps to Building Gender Equity into the Global Coffee Supply Chain


Think back to the last coffee you drank. Was it a man or a woman who picked those cherries, who carried them to the drying station, and who painstakingly sorted them? And if it was a woman, did she reap an income from it?

For women in rural coffee communities in certain countries, there’s a high chance that they serve as the primary labor force yet own neither the land nor the fruit. As coffee consumers and importers, this poses some difficult questions for us. What does it mean to have a gender-inclusive coffee supply chain? And how do you construct a program for improvement when policies and cultural norms are not on your side?

These aren’t easy questions, but they do have answers. I’m involved in a program driving gender equality in coffee in Burundi, and I’m here to share the eight key steps that we’re taking.

Spanish Version: 8 Pasos para Construir Igualdad de Género en la Cadena Mundial de Suministro de Café

IWCA Burundi Team

IWCA Burundi Team: Benigne Nduwimana, Isabelle Sinamenye, Consolate Ndayishimiye, Euphrasie Mashwabure, Angele Ciza, Seraphine Ngaruko, BD Imports President Phyllis Johnson.

IWCA Burundi: A Program for Change

The International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), in collaboration with the UN and the International Trade Centre (ITC), has set out to build networks of women in coffee throughout East Africa. The challenges women face include a lack of land ownership, financial resources, and education, among many others. These are similar in many places, yet each place requires unique solutions based on the environment and social norms.

Through a coalition of supply chain partners that span the globe, we are starting to realise changes. Women at the core of the supply chain are starting to receive a return on their investment, gender norms are shifting, and women are no longer free labor in coffee production.

Women's coffee alliance supporting women in coffee

Mawazo joined the program in 2013; she used her bonus from that year to purchase a bicycle, giving her and her child a form of transport.

And in 2010, the IWCA opened a chapter in Burundi. It’s seen great success to date: during the 2015 coffee season, over 1,300 women and 700 men worked towards our shared goal of quality production, transparency, and gender equity.

This marks a significant change:

“In my country, women in coffee do not have land. The fact is, in Burundi, the owner of the land is the man. The fruit of the agriculture belongs to the man. When you get married, you go to another family. You live on the land, but it belongs to your husband. You can work on it, but you can’t decide what to do with it. For example, if you have coffee, you grow and pick the coffee. But the sale of the coffee and the money, the man needs to manage. Women, they need to wait. Wait and see what is left over for them, and for the children”

Isabelle Sinamenye, President Association des femmes du café Burundi: Johnstone-Louis, M., Deighton, J. September 2013, International Women’s Alliance, Harvard Business School case study No N9-514-038

gender differences in the coffee trade in Burundi

Female participants in the program outnumber men 2:1, whereas volumes of cherries sold at washing stations based on gender are higher for men than women. Women are seeing opportunities in the program and will continue to show increases in the volume of cherries sold.    

So what are the IWCA Burundi’s eight integral steps?

1. Engage Both Men & Women

In Burundi, we decided that the most effective option would be to pursue a program of men and women working together. Creating a women’s exclusive organization would cause friction, not to mention that women and men wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn from each other. As of such, men were asked to be involved in the program from the start. Those who became a part of it understood that the primary mission was allowing growth opportunities for women.

2. Establish Goals & Develop a Policy

We knew that some pretty big changes were needed. Women who had picked coffee cherries had to be allowed to sell to the washing station in their own names – unlike in the past, when landless women would have to enter the names of their husbands, who would receive the payment.

Teaching coffee farmers about gender equality

Isabelle Sinamenye, IWCA Burundi President, teaches farmers in Ngozi Province the value of gender equity.  October 2015.

3. Focus on Quality Coffee Production

One major decision made by the Burundi chapter was to focus on quality. Isabelle Sinamenye, a trained cupper and licensed Q grader, is responsible for maintaining quality standards for the national coffee board in Burundi. With IWCA Burundi, she teaches the need for quality picking and processing. The goal is for the nation’s coffees to compete in quality competitions at the highest of levels, thereby building the country’s credibility in coffee circles.

4. Negotiate Better Deals over the Whole Supply Chain

One of our greatest returns came from negotiating with local washing station owners. Typically, the washing station owner purchases the coffee cherries from farmers and the relationship ends at this point. Yet the chapter negotiated a profit-sharing plan with the washing station owner, meaning that they are paid after contracts are secured with an international buyer found by the IWCA. The result is that each farmer and picker in the program receives a portion of the selling price based on the volume of cherries sold. Plus, the washing station owner doesn’t have the added cost of finding a buyer.

IWCA Burundi community in Kayanza

Pauline Ntaconkurikira speaks to the IWCA Burundi community in Kayanza. Since 2013, she has become the primary leader on the ground, teaching others quality production.

5. Create a Profit-Sharing/Incentive Program for Farmers & Pickers

IWCA created a profit-sharing scheme in the hope of increased production and participation – and it worked exactly as they had imagined. Each year, they make an event out of giving everyone their annual share of the profit. Everyone comes out to celebrate and learn about the program. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of participants in the program grew from 150 to 2,200. And production went from 100 60 kg bags to 1,200.

SEE ALSO: AFCA in Action: Tackling Gender Inequality in African Coffee Farming

6. Engage International Buyers

Initially, many of the program’s women weren’t comfortable sitting at negotiation tables with buyers or telling their own stories – or using technology as a sales tool. Similarly, they didn’t fully understand the competition they faced in the global market. That’s where my organisation came in. I run BD Imports with my husband, a coffee importer. We engage with IWCA Burundi not only as a buyer, but also as a mentoring partner, helping the women to sell their own coffee.

Yet this wasn’t enough on its own; we needed to form a coalition of buyers able to see beyond competition. We reached out to customers such as micro roaster Coffee By Design (Portland, Maine); Covoya Specialty Coffee (Healdsburg, California),  Zephyr Coffee, an affiliate of Louis Dreyfus (New Orleans); and Balzac Brothers (Charleston, South Carolina). It was refreshing to work with teams that were so enthusiastic, both about the quality of the coffee and the gender equity program.

cupping coffee at zephyr coffee

Tasting 2015 season at Zephyr Coffee, New Orleans from IWCA Burundi.

7. Support from Non-Profit Partners

Non-profit organisations are at the forefront of women’s empowerment. The International Trade Centre and The International Women’s Coffee Alliance helped, both through leadership training and connecting us to markets. Additionally, through their international work, they bring a global understanding of the issues.

8. Tell the Story

There’s a great market for specialty coffee – and an even better one for specialty coffee with quality stories. Yet this posed another challenge for women in coffee: how do you tell stories when culturally it’s unacceptable to talk about yourself or your work? So BD Imports, along with the IWCA team, constructed marketing materials to help women share their experiences.

Isabelle Sinamenye visits Coffee by Design in Portland

Isabelle Sinamenye visits coffee roaster and retailer, Coffee by Design in Portland, Maine, April 2015.

Positive Outcomes

Programs must measure outcomes, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that women at the core of coffee production are doing great things with the new opportunities afforded to them by IWCA Burundi.

To name but a few, farmers are paying debts, investing in future crops, winning quality competitions, and buying small household items to benefit the family, while IWCA Burundi members are recognized by local and international organizations, as well as increasing their income through the bonus program.

In the future, IWCA Burundi hopes to provide further training to rural farmers, open a coffee shop in the capital, and simply empower farmers to achieve better lives with greater opportunities – in this generation and the next.

Perfect Daily Grind.

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up to our newsletter!