September 20, 2016

SCAA & CQI Ask: How Can Gender Equity Improve Coffee?


In 2014, the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) launched the Partnership for Gender Equity. Stage 1, supported by the SCAA, set out to help find answers for the question “how can we make coffee better through gender equity”? Stage 2 launched in 2016, and with it an SCAA Sustainability Council-organized webinar designed to help members learn more.

Intrigued? The CQI will be host another webinar on September 28th – next Wednesday. Here’s what was discussed in the first one.

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

coffee training

Discussing five-year goals as a coffee community of both men and women.

The Webinar Details

Chaired by Kim Elena Ionescu, the webinar was titled “Addressing Gender Equity in Coffee: What Do I Need to Know?” The two panelists were Cristina Manfre, Senior Advisor for Cultural Practice, LLC – a DC-based women-owned small business specializing in applying gender analysis to international development programs – and me, Kimberly Easson, Gender Program Advisor for the CQI.

Participants were invited to pose questions via Twitter while the session was broadcast live on YouTube.  Ionescu also brought her own questions to start the conversation, both based on her time as a coffee buyer and from her role at SCAA.

Kimberly Easson on a coffee farm.

Kimberly Easson on a coffee farm.

Growing Awareness of Gender Inequality

We started with Ionescu sharing a recent epiphany from her time as a buyer. She typically met with male producers and in her trip reports referred to “the farmer and his family”. It’s only looking back that she realizes that this demonstrates an unconscious bias toward the man of the family. Unless the woman in the family had a different job, she too would be a farmer – she just wasn’t recognized as one.

Yet that’s one person’s change in thinking. What about the industry as a whole?

The public dialogue about women’s rights as a global issue began in earnest in 1995 at the time of the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, when Hillary Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights”.  Since that time, development agencies and funders have set out to better understand the issue and support women in agriculture. They have implemented both  research and programs with that aim.

And at the same time, there’s been an evolution in the understanding of where specialty coffee comes from. Growing access to information via the internet and the ability to travel more readily to remote coffee-producing communities, has led to us seeing for ourselves where coffee comes from and who is farming it.

coffee community

Perceptions of coffee farmers are changing.

How Do We Work Toward Equality?

This means that buyers are beginning to realize, as Ionescu did, that even though men have the most visible roles in coffee – such as meeting with buyers, taking coffee to markets and participating in training – women’s roles are critical to the quality and supply of coffee.  

As of such, coffee businesses are starting to embrace both the challenges and the associated opportunities by investing in gender equity practices. Yet even more so, people and businesses know the importance of the issue but don’t know how to get involved.

What are the tools to achieve gender equity? How can we #makecoffeebetter?

coffee proffessionals

Conversations about the future must include women.

Terminology: The Three Es

In order to progress further, we need to understand our goals. And more precisely, we need to understand what those goals mean. Manfre explained the difference between equity, equality, and empowerment in the context of gender:

Gender equality: the goal – men and women are equal
Gender equity: the process of achieving equality – ensuring that men and women have a fair chance of getting their needs met
Empowerment: the processes by which women and men gain the ability to main choices about their lives

All three concepts are related. However, Ionescu underscored that – although this webinar series is focused on gender equity – equality is the ultimate goal.

What Makes Gender Roles in Coffee Unique?

I explained that:

“Similarities exist across different agricultural products – gender inequity is an issue that permeates whole societies. In most parts of the world, coffee is seen to be a man’s crop. This is similar to other cash crops, like maize, where men play a dominant role in making decisions about the crop and have control over the income. Women tend to have control over other crops and livestock such as fruit, vegetables, and small animals, like poultry, which they produce and sell at local markets.”

Yet in most countries, women do a significant amount of the work in the coffee value chain, from the nursery to picking, sorting, and storing. Then men – for many reasons – are the ones that take the coffee to market and receive the payment. Men are also the ones that most typically participate in training programs and take up leadership roles in farmer organizations. This leaves women without a voice – essentially invisible in the sector.

I was keen to underscore that “what makes coffee unique is the opportunity we have to take collaborative action to transform the sector, thereby affecting millions of families around the world and creating a ripple effect that extends far beyond coffee into the agricultural sector as a whole.”

coffee training

It’s important to bring women into training events.

Lost Potential Means a Slower Economic Growth

Manfre pointed out the strong correlation between gender equality and economic growth. Gender inequality can exact a high cost on economic and human development. Discriminatory norms and policies against certain population groups, like women, influence who gets educated and who has access to land. These norms can become embodied in legal structures, which can in turn become biases that we don’t realize and impact our business decisions and activities.

Ideally, businesses want to be able to harness the talents of the labor force to increase productivity and competitiveness. However, it’s difficult to benefit from the labor force’s full talents if decisions are guided by the belief that men and women are different – that they are only suited for certain jobs, that biology makes one half of the population unable to do certain tasks, or that women are not capable of taking on leadership positions.

When you fail to take full advantage of the potential of as much as 50% of the workforce, you may be missing important opportunities for innovation and greater success.

Farming communities

Farming communities are made up of both men and women.

Gender Equity and Coffee’s Other Issues

Climate change, food security, migration… all the other issues that impact the coffee sector are linked in several ways to gender equity and women’s empowerment.

First, women and girls bear the brunt of these issues. For example, less food on the table means that women and girls eat less than the men and boys in the same household. If water becomes scarce, women and girls travel longer distances and spend more time, to fetch it.

What’s more, men and women typically respond differently to these challenges for sociocultural reasons: with climate change, men are more likely to migrate to cities for work, whether on an interim basis or permanently, which leads to a feminization of rural areas.

To find the best strategies to address these issues, it’s important to understand the differing impact on men, women, boys and girls; invite these unique and diverse perspectives to help design community-led solutions; and ensure that everyone has access to the tools, resources, and training that meet their needs to cope and respond.

Women’s perspectives have been missing from those key decision-making forums that are meant to design the solutions to meet their needs. Yet their unique experience and perspective is critical to this.

Farming communities

Women’s perspectives are needed to make progress with issues in the coffee industry.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s important to note that the momentum on gender in coffee is not just coming from the sustainability or development community. The coffee sector is filled with a number of social enterprise businesses with a focus is on generating a win-win for both business and society.  

It makes sense to link these businesses to the development sector to come to an agreement as to how we view success. Working together, success can be defined not just as increased profits, but include sustainability and resilience in the value chain. We can find investment for those programs that are having the greatest impact.

Progress is made through a shared commitment. That may be by actors connected in the coffee value chain or by businesses and organizations coming together, in pre-competitive collaboration, to recognize that gender is an issue – that it does pose risks and is worth taking action on together.

Gender equality is connected to all of these things that we value in coffee, and things we haven’t quite figured out a way to value yet. We need to keep having these discussions, finding evidence and trying to weave these issues together.

To learn more, there are a number of resources available on this topic. A good place to start is with these two from the CQI and the SCAA:

Watch the webinar here:

Watch the next webinar…

We’ve discussed the current context – now discover how to make a difference. I’ll be looking at the work of the Partnership for Gender Equity at 2 pm Eastern Time/11 am Pacific Time on September 28th. For details and/or to register, send me an email.

All photo credit: K. Easson.

Perfect Daily Grind