March 8, 2021

“Voices heard for the first time”: Women in coffee co-operatives

The coffee sector has traditionally been dominated by men. While a high percentage of the production workforce is female, women producers often have little agency in their field. 

However, social justice and an industry-wide realisation that women must have an equal role in the future of the coffee sector are changing this narrative.

To find out more about the women’s coffee movement, I spoke to Jhannel Tomlinson from Jamaican Women in Coffee, Kimberly Easson from Partnership for Gender Equity and Connie Kolosvary from Café Femenino. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on colonial inequalities in the coffee sector.

Why the rise of women’s coffee?

Women are a significant part of the agricultural workforce in the coffee sector. It is estimated that between 20% and 30% of coffee farms are female-operated, and as much as 70% of the labour in coffee production is provided by women, depending on the region.

Despite this, coffee production tends to be seen as a “man’s business”, where women often have supplemental roles. 

Jhannel Tomlinson is the Sustainability Lead at Jamaican Women in Coffee (JAWiC). She says that even though the system in coffee production is considered inclusive, certain limitations mean that women cannot effectively capitalise on their activities in the sector.

For historical, cultural, or institutional reasons, women’s access to land often involves right of use, but not ownership. The fact that they often juggle household chores and childcare alongside work on the farm further constrains their opportunities. 

Jhannel says that while women might participate in the labour, the majority of the decisions are made by men, who have had more opportunities to acquire the experience necessary for decision-making.

Today, there is more awareness of the need for gender equity at large. Kimberly Easson is the Founder & CEO at The Partnership for Gender Equity. She says: “There is a growing recognition of women’s role in coffee and how it helps to drive and push the sustainability of the sector.”

However, the reason behind the establishment of women coffee co-operatives is not always about achieving gender equity.

Sometimes (and more often than not) it’s just a matter of being practical. Some examples follow below.

Culture

Connie Kolosvary is the Director of Café Femenino with Organic Products Trading Company. She administers a Café Femenino Program with a woman-only membership co-operative in Sumatra, a predominantly Muslim Indonesian island. 

There, she tells me, that for cultural reasons, men and women gather separately in different rooms. A women co-operative is a great solution to this cultural reality; it enables both men and women to go about their business more freely.

Conflict

In post-conflict countries, women often have no option but to rally and keep business going. Connie tells me about her experience in Rwanda, where she worked with a coffee cooperative since 2009. 

“Most of the men of the community were either killed in the genocide or in prison,” she says. “The women picked up the task of coffee production, creating a Cafe Femenino Program there in the form of an all-women coffee co-operative.

“The women of the community came together from both sides of the conflict. They said ‘poverty is our common enemy now, and we will overcome it together’. It was heartbreaking but also inspiring.”

Migration

Kimberly adds that migration is also a cause. 

“In Guatemala, for example, [many] men have migrated, and the women are left behind to manage the business. 

“They need to band together to improve their capacities and find a way forward.”

How do women co-operatives work?

Women co-operatives operate in the same way as regular co-operatives, with one fundamental defining feature: women decide what, where, and how to do things. 

“There is no shared definition,” according to Kimberly. Ultimately, it is less about rigid requirements and more about purpose and approach. For the Partnership for Gender Equity, Kimberly says that it’s grounded in a holistic approach to gender equity in farmer organisations. 

“The strategy might include a women’s coffee co-operative, or a programme, inside a more comprehensive approach to gender equity,” says Kimberly. 

At JAWiC, Jhannel tell me that it is a “two-step strategy”. The first step is giving women a safe space to feel empowered and take charge. After that, the second step is including men and young people to make it an all-inclusive community-wide change. Unlike many traditional setups in coffee production, women are directly involved in deciding where the funds go. 

“Knowing that only the men were a part of the conversation relating to decisions of investment made me realise that cooperatives can work more equitably and effectively with a structure like Café Femenino, where women are required to be involved in the conversation,” Connie says. “Many times they are the voice of the community that is not being heard.”

Connie, Jhannel, Kimberly, and the organisations they represent are ambassadors of the same message. They want to remove the barriers that prevent women from having a say in decisions related to their livelihood. They want them to have equal participation and membership status. 

“Now the voices of women are being heard for the first time in the co-operatives we have programmes in,” Connie tells me.

Plans and ideas need to be put in motion 

However, simply having ideas and a voice is not enough. Once ideas and plans have been laid out, women producers need the support to put them into motion.

For example, in Cafe Femenino Programs, coffee producers receive financial incentives and support. They also have access to funding through the Cafe Femenino Foundation for projects they request and prioritise.

The system also enables roasters to fund projects and support women in coffee communities directly through donations.

“It’s an integral part of empowering women,” Connie explains. “Having ideas for projects that will improve their own lives is a powerful thing, but to implement them on the ground, you need access to funding. That is where roaster donations to the foundation come in.”

In contrast, The Partnership for Gender Equity offers an online assessment tool that enables co-operatives to determine their gender equity “score”.

Co-operatives then use the information from the report they receive to create a tailored action plan. This supports them to improve gender equity in their organisation, and can be funded by partners or by the co-operative itself.

Social change through added value

So, what is the added value of doing business with a coffee co-operative operated by women?

To put it simply, value is driven by demand. Buyers interested in women’s coffee will be responding to an increasing consumer demand for social justice and equality across the supply chain.

Connie tells me that many roasters are attracted to Cafe Femenino beans because they have a philosophy of driving social change through the “power of the dollar”. 

“Demand for women’s coffee has consistently increased since 2003, when we first started talking to the industry about the difficult living conditions of women farmers,” she says.

“This was especially the case after the #metoo movement, when social awareness of the importance of women empowerment was ‘mainstreamed’ worldwide.”

However, we have to be cautious with how we market this. Kimberly says: “Using images of women in coffee is a big marketing strategy, and one not necessarily reflective of the goals of feminism.”

There are concerns that such an approach may end up marginalising women, rather than bringing them to the centre. 

Connie warns that a lot of coffee out there is marketed as “grown by women”, but not all of these brands actually provide a space for women to have a voice or receive financial benefit.

She says that when you buy something labelled as “women’s coffee”, you need to examine the flow of money and how the co-operative is structured. Do women have power equal to men in that structure? Roasters and buyers have a responsibility to look for those answers. 

More chairs at the decision-making table benefits everyone

Empowering women in coffee is less about “handing them power”; instead, it is more about encouraging them to have more agency and assert themselves in a traditionally male-dominated industry. This gives them a louder voice in a community where they are already active and essential.

For instance, Kimberly says that “empowered women can take up broader leadership roles”. Learning about organisational leadership and developing traditional business skills is important. She adds that these skills support the development of women leaders, and in turn help to achieve systemic change.

It’s also important to remember that this is not a competition between men and women. It is not a matter of turning the tables, but rather of levelling the playing field. 

For a women co-operative or a gender equitable organisation to work, men need to be on board. It is not a matter of segregating men and women, but instead driving collaboration for a more equal distribution of roles and opportunities.

“The women are not just updating the norms for women; they’re updating the norms for men at the same time,” Connie explains. She adds that some men may be sceptical at first, but notes that participation in Cafe Femenino is voluntary.

“It usually takes two crop cycles for them to see that they aren’t taking anything away from them; instead, they are just adding more chairs to the table to increase the benefits for all.” 

She tells me that she is hopeful. “For the first time, we are seeing women being elected by men into leadership positions; on the board of directors at co-ops, for example. Before, it just wasn’t done. But when it happens once, then it can start to become the norm.”

This has a ripple effect. In time, with more leadership experience and better, more equitable access to education, women will be better equipped to run for governmental positions inside their community, if they want to. 

Another indirect outcome of women leaning into more powerful roles is that men often “step up” and keep up. As a result, women often become more valued in their community and families. Domestic violence and sexual abuse rates also drop.

Gender equity is crucial, but communities need to participate on their own terms

As with any social development initiative, it’s important to respect cultural norms. Forcing a new, perhaps alien concept on a community is not only disrespectful, but it will also be ineffective.

Understanding the local context is integral to mapping gender issues in a given area or country.

“Who are we to say how people should behave when it comes to gender equity?” Kimberly asks. “There are shades of grey along the spectrum of gender equality and inequality.

“It is not our responsibility to solve the issue. However, by supporting gender inclusive and equitable practices, we can influence the system.”

Furthermore, coffee farming is typically a family business built on decades, even centuries of tradition. Kimberly says that we need to be wary of creating artificial divisions in a scenario where it’s natural for families to work together.

She recalls an experience in Peru where she asked coffee farmers if they were interested in promoting women’s coffee. She says that many women said no, because they worked well with their husbands and as families. 

“You need to allow the people to have their say about what is right for them in their context,” Kimberly says. “There is a risk of forcing people into a box to gain market access that just doesn’t fit for them.”

Solutions do exist that both promote gender equity and meet the vision a community has for itself. According to Kimberly, this involves forming a plan that’s informed by all members of the household, including young people. Then, the entire family needs to understand how gender equity can support them in their journey to sustainability and resilience.

A significant percentage of the workforce in coffee production is female. As such, it is imperative that we work towards empowering the women who work in coffee production.

“Gender equity is the foundation for many things,” Kimberly says. “If we bring it into how we think about coffee, gender equity has to be the foundation of sustainability.”

Participation at any level helps provide the space for women coffee growers to have agency and a voice. This will benefit the entire supply chain for generations to come.

Enjoyed this? Then try one of our other articles on women in the coffee sector.

Photo credits: Jamaican Women in Coffee (JAWiC), Cafe Femenino Rwanda Program, Cafe Femenino Sumatra Program, Partnership for Gender Equity

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