April 29, 2021

Gender equity in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s coffee sector


A little over two years ago, the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report found the gap in economic opportunity to be widening, closing in on levels not seen since 2008.

The coffee sector is a part of this gap. The International Coffee Organisation’s (ICO) Gender Equality in the Coffee Sector report of the same year estimated that up to 70% of the labour in coffee production is provided by women, despite the fact that they receive fewer economic benefits from coffee markets than men.

This is true in many coffee producing countries around the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where more than 80% of the workforce in coffee production is female.

To discuss gender equity in the DRC’s coffee sector and take steps towards improving it, the Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE), ÉLAN RDC, and USAID Feed the Future DRC Strengthening Value Chains Activity are set to host a webinar entitled Advancing Gender Equity in Coffee in the Democratic Republic of Congo on May 5. Read on to learn more about this topic ahead of the session.

You might also like our article on “Voices heard for the first time”: Women in coffee co-operatives

Understanding gender equity in the coffee sector

Kimberly Easson is the Founder and CEO of PGE, and a panellist in the upcoming webinar. “[PGE] believes gender equity is the foundation for a sustainable coffee sector,” she tells me. “The challenge with gender equity is that it’s a complex topic, and often not easily understood.”

While gender equality is achieved by breaking down gender-based stereotypes, prejudices, biases, and discrimination in the pursuit of equal treatment, gender equity acknowledges and accounts for the differences in needs and “historic disadvantages” between men and women. The aim is true justice and fairness.

“Gender equity impacts everyone,” Kimberly says. “That includes men, families, children, and specifically women who are in more vulnerable populations.”

In coffee production, women are more likely to carry out fieldwork, harvesting, and processing, while men gravitate towards the transport and sale of coffee. This reduces the access women have to the wider coffee market and ultimately diminishes their economic involvement.

Kimberly hopes the webinar will support the wider conversation about gender equity. “We’re trying to create a common language that can be shared along all of the actors and stakeholders in the supply chain,” she says. “We want to bring it into a sphere of business language where a buyer and a supplier can talk to each other about gender equity.”

Holly Krueger is the Gender Equity Social Inclusion (GESI) Advisor at ÉLAN RDC and Managing Partner at The Canopy Lab. “It is exciting to see that the private sector is [becoming] increasingly aware of the different roles, opportunities and constraints facing women and men farmers in coffee production in the DRC,” she says. “This is an important change.”

Kimberly adds: “By helping foster this understanding, we can then encourage meaningful action with a real impact, [which is] the basis for the work in the DRC that we’ve been doing.”

Gender equity in coffee: Why is it important?

“Coffee in particular has most often been noted as a man’s crop,” Kimberly says. “Many of these export crop supply chains were set up specifically to be male-driven [and] male-dominated.”

It’s estimated that 25 million rural households depend on coffee production as their main source of income. 

Of these, between 5% and 30% of households are women-headed – meaning around 5 million female coffee farmers.

The World Bank stated in 2012 that empowering women not only improves their own wellbeing, but also supports the wellbeing of their families and wider communities.

Susan Heller Evenson is a trader at Atlas Coffee Importers. She says: “When we invest in gender-equity training, resources, and education for women and girls anywhere – including in the coffee supply chain – we are investing in the long-term health of entire communities.”

Gender equity in the DRC

The DRC scores 0.652 on the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index, ranking 152 out of 160 countries. This indicates the struggles that the majority of women face in the country. 

Overall development in the DRC has been hindered for more than 60 years, thanks to decades of political instability and conflict since the country became independent in 1960.

Forced and child marriage, alongside sexual slavery and violence, are some of the issues women face in the DRC. A reported 56.6% of women and girls aged between 18 and 49 are reported to have experienced some form of sexual violence, which is often used as a weapon of war.

Around 61.2% of women-headed households live under the poverty line, compared to 54.3% of male-headed households. There is also an educational gap: for every ten boys in tertiary-level education, there are only four girls present, which leads to further generational inequality.

This gap also extends to land ownership and consequently coffee production. Women for Women International’s website states that “both formal and customary law discriminate against women” in this regard. In the DRC, women are legally unable to own land without their husband’s permission, and cannot inherit, purchase, or sell it.

To promote gender equity and inclusion throughout the coffee sector, Kimberly explains that the project partners are implementing PGE’s approach on the ground in the DRC.

“[There are the] ÉLAN RDC UK Aid funded project and the USAID Strengthening Value Chains project in South Kivu,” she explains. “[Their work includes] a series of videos accompanied by in-person training led by the local ÉLAN RDC and SVC team leads, Lucie and Bertin, who [will] also be on the webinar [panel].”

The videos, Kimberly adds, were created as a result of uncertainty around in-person events with Covid-19. Where there was enough connectivity, they were shared via WhatsApp to farmer organisations.

“The videos were accompanied by direct training to essentially help the farmer organisations understand the five domains of a gender equitable farmer organisation,” she adds.

Bertin Bisimwa is a Gender and Youth Inclusion Specialist and part of the Feed the Future Democratic Republic of the Congo Strengthening Value Chains Activity (SVC) team. He says: “In South Kivu, the project approach led to immediate efforts by co-operatives with concrete results. [These results have included] setting up women’s committees or youth committees and increasing (by election or nomination) women in the decision-making bodies.

“The co-operatives organised several awareness sessions and shared the videos with other members. Compared to virtual training, even where the concept of women’s coffee already exists, it seems to us that with the PGE approach, we encourage families to work together.”

In a country where both men and women often express uncertainty around the meaning and implications of gender equity, resources and frameworks like these are key to improving women’s livelihoods.

How does the co-operative model support women coffee farmers?

Since 2010, co-ops have started to form in the DRC, but access is often limited for women. Many cannot afford to become members, or are made to feel uncomfortable when present because of lingering stereotypes and biases against them.

“Women have been marginalised and more oppressed,” Kimberly explains. “The focus is on elevating women to increase participation in co-operatives, in terms of membership and governance bodies, and to help foster more gender equitable attitudes and behaviours.”

Lucie Bahati is the Perennial Crops Advisor at ÉLAN RDC, and a panellist on the Advancing Gender Equity in Coffee in the DRC webinar. “Together with USAID Strengthening Value Chains (SVC), we brought together ten co-operatives to participate in the PGE pilot programme,” she says.

She adds that the project was carried out in North and South Kivu – major coffee-producing regions in the DRC – and used videos and in-person training to support farmer organisations to become more gender equitable. 

“The co-operative representatives are keen to understand what roasters are looking for, and if that includes gender equity, they are willing to strengthen their commitment and programmes focused on gender and social inclusion,” Lucie notes.

It’s also important to recognise that gender equity among farmer organisations doesn’t just empower women economically – it also improves coffee quality. A 2015 SCAA Symposium presentation by Paineto Baluku from the Bukonzo Joint Coop in Uganda reported that one coffee co-operative saw cup scores increase from 79 to 85 points over a four-year period when it started including the inputs of female producers.

Kelly Amoroso is a Coffee and Tea Buyer at Allegro Coffee Company. “When a farming co-operative takes the initiative to begin a credible gender equality journey, it’s vital that we send a clear market message that we support those efforts,” she says. “The PGE Buyer Supplier Alliance is one way we will do this.”

Supporting gender equity in coffee

Kimberly tells me that creating a more gender equitable coffee sector is not a “quick solution” for female producers in the DRC. “Our goal [at] PGE is to get as many stakeholders around the world in the global coffee sector to embark on a shared journey towards greater gender equity,” she explains.

Empowering women and closing the gender gap is one of the 17 2030 Sustainable Development Goals set out by the UN. Global agriculture and the coffee sector in particular have no small part to play in achieving this.

However, it’s also important to recognise that role of the consumer is integral. “Consumers have a set of values which are aligned with the Sustainable Development goals,” Kimberly states. “[They] want their purchases [to] reflect their values.”

This resonates in particular with the millennial coffee drinker. Millennials will soon be the largest living demographic in the US, and their purchasing behaviours are driving specialty coffee consumption up. As a consequence, their shared values are becoming increasingly significant for roasters and cafés, who need to embrace more sustainable practices.

“In the DRC, where women bear the brunt of conflict, economic instability, and food insecurity, the consumer’s voice has tremendous potential,” Kimberly says. “[It can positively] impact the circumstances of those women and their communities.”

Research by YouthSight found that almost all millennial-aged men and women support gender equality, with 58% of men and 85% of women claiming feminism was a good cause. Based on these perceptions, gender equity in the coffee sector is becoming mandatory for businesses who want to drive social change.

“We’re not talking specifically about sourcing and selling gender equity coffee, because there’s no certification,” Kimberly says. “We’re actually talking about roasters and café owners working with, investing in, and sourcing from farmer organisations that are on a credible gender equity journey.”

The Advancing Gender Equity in Coffee in the Democratic Republic of Congo webinar on May 5 will further explore the ways in which coffee supply chain actors can commit to advancing gender equity in the DRC.

In addition, if you’re interested in contributing to the wider discussion about the DRC’s coffee market, you can take part in a market engagement survey here (for buyers) or here (for suppliers).

Despite the challenges that women coffee producers face in the country, there is yet hope for a more socially and economically inclusive Congolese coffee sector – one where women reap the benefits of their hard work.

Sign up to the Advancing Gender Equity in Coffee in the Democratic Republic of Congo webinar here!

Photo credits: ÉLAN RDC, Lucy O’Bryan Photography

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: PGE is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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