November 16, 2022

Women in East African coffee production


Coffee is one of East Africa’s biggest cash crops – it is responsible for the livelihoods of the estimated five million people who work in the region’s coffee sector

Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan are the seven members of the regional East African Community intergovernmental organisation. Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Seychelles, Somalia, and Sudan are also part of the region as far as geography is concerned.

A large proportion of East African coffee workers are women. In fact, in 2018, the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) reported that up to 70% of labour in coffee production is carried out by women, although this number can vary between countries and regions.

Despite making up a significant proportion of the coffee labour workforce, East African women often earn substantially less money than their male counterparts. This is largely a result of prejudiced misconceptions about womens’ roles in decision making, as well as a lack of progress in improving womens’ access to finance.

To understand more about the role of women in East African production, I spoke to two local industry professionals. Read on for their insight into how gender equality can be improved in East Africa’s coffee sector.

You may also like our article exploring how improving gender equity can benefit coffee production.

Africa ANGOLA Calulo, coffee fazienda of Fernando Sobral, woman cleans the coffee farm from weeds

Women in agriculture in East Africa

Simply put, women play an essential role in agriculture across East Africa. According to USAID’s East African Gender Fact Sheet, up to 96% of women in Burundi, 76% in Kenya, 84% in Rwanda, 71% in Tanzania, and 77% in Uganda work in agriculture – including the countries’ respective coffee sectors. 

However, it’s important to note each country’s agricultural exports can vary widely – meaning we need to account for these differences.

In many cases, women carry out the majority of physical labour in East African coffee farms – including harvesting, pruning, weeding, and removing ageing plants. 

Lorraine Girinka is the Communications Director at Kahawa Link Company (KALICO), a woman-owned coffee company in Burundi. 

“In Burundi, women have some of the most important roles in coffee production, from planting seeds to harvesting cherries,” she says. “Women are largely responsible for ensuring that coffee plants grow healthily. 

“Even if a farm is owned by a woman and her husband, it is mostly women who have to take care of the coffee plants,” she adds.

In line with a number of traditional sociocultural norms in East Africa, men are generally the owners of these coffee farms, and the coffee plants as a result. Ultimately, this means that even if women work on these farms, men in the industry are more likely to hold important decision-making roles, and receive more of the profit.

Max Peters is a coffee professional in Tanzania. 

“A lot of Tanzanian farms are owned by male heads of households, but when it comes to carrying out manual labour, this is largely the responsibility of women,” he explains.

According to a report by Farming First, Ugandan women carry out up to 58% of fieldwork labour on coffee farms, and up to 72% of post-harvest processing.

Despite the unequal distribution of physical labour, male coffee workers often make more money than their female counterparts. For instance, the Specialty Coffee Association’s 2015 report on gender equity in East Africa found that on average, men earned more than US $700 harvesting coffee, while women made less than US $450

Although this is a result of many complex issues, the economic gap between men and women is largely because of several disadvantages and prejudices that women and girls face – including a lack of access to financial resources, education, and decision-making roles.

Cooperative members sort coffee on drying beds at Orinde Farmers' Cooperative Society in Rachuonyo South, Kenya.

Why are women excluded from decision-making roles and access to finance?

Issues surrounding gender inequity are highly complex, but can partly be attributed to social and cultural misconceptions and prejudices about women being in leadership positions.

“My mother, who worked in coffee production, would tell me about the challenges she had to overcome simply because of being a woman,” Max says. “Some men would claim that it would be too difficult for her to hold a leadership role in coffee production because of bureaucracy and paperwork, and it would be easier to pay a man to deal with these matters on her behalf.

“But the same men who refused my mother access to decision-making roles and financial resources would gladly welcome me to their training workshops [because I’m male],” he adds.

In some coffee-growing countries, the exclusion of women in senior roles has been an institutional problem for some time now. For instance, some coffee co-operatives in the region implement policies and regulations which make women feel unwelcome, while others provide no growth opportunities for women.

Moreover, to join a co-operative as a member, applicants are generally required to own at least a few coffee plants. Considering how ownership often works for coffee plants and farms in East Africa, this presents a significant barrier.

“It’s a common social and cultural norm in East Africa that coffee farms have to be inherited by male members of a family,” Max explains. “In Tanzania, it’s difficult for women to own coffee farms, even if they have the financial means to do so.

“In some parts of central Tanzania, it’s almost impossible for a woman to own a farm,” he adds. “This area includes a lot of inherited parcels of land, and only men are allowed to inherit them.”

Max adds that women are able to inherit parcels of land, but only from their husbands and not from their families. Ultimately, this is an issue which only further contributes to placing more value on a woman once she marries a man.

Lorraine tells me many of these problems are a result of a formal lack of education for women and girls.

“Women and girls are not encouraged to attend school, so they grow coffee in order to earn some money for their families,” she explains. “They are also not empowered enough to run their own coffee businesses.

“Burundian women aren’t encouraged or valued enough to take up positions of leadership in coffee production, especially women from more rural areas,” she adds.

Furthermore, because of social and cultural traditions which require women to carry out the vast majority (if not all) of childcare and household duties, women often have little time to take part in other activities.

A woman estate worker harvesting ripe coffee cherries from which the green coffee bean is extracted. Malawi. Image shot 07/2000. Exact date unknown.

Is gender equity improving in East African coffee production?

First and foremost, it’s important to note that improving gender equity anywhere in the world is an arduous task that requires massive shifts in social and cultural mindsets and practices.

“We need to change these mindsets,” Max says.

He explains that because women have been so vital to the production of coffee in East Africa for so long, many of them possess invaluable expertise and experience in coffee production. He adds that their male counterparts need to recognise the value of this knowledge and expertise.

However, gender equity is about much more social and cultural beliefs; improving womens’ access to finance and resources is also vital.

In recent years, more and more co-operative societies are starting to offer training and technical support to women in the coffee industry – helping to improve their access to resources and education. 

As well as this, there is the support of several women’s coffee organisations, notably the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). In fact, several East African countries have their own IWCA chapters, including Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Burundi.

In Uganda, several non-governmental organisations like Farm Africa are providing women with better access to different markets, as well as encouraging them to join coffee co-operatives, take on more leadership roles, and make changes to decision-making dynamics within their own households.

The Tanzania Women in Coffee Association also carries out similar work to Farm Africa, but membership growth has been slower – showing that more work still needs to be done in Tanzania’s coffee sector.

In Kenya, the Gender Value Chain Training for Kenyan Women Coffee Farmers programme focuses on training women to carry out best agricultural practices and processing practices.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (which is reportedly one of the most economically vulnerable countries in the world), non-profit organisations such as On The Ground run gender equity training programmes.

The work of such organisations allows women coffee workers to collaboratively overcome the challenges they collectively face – allowing women to empower themselves. 

By providing women with the best practices for weeding, pruning, mulching, harvesting, and processing, they can carry out these practices more effectively – potentially increasing yields and quality.

Ultimately, however, women are still vastly under-represented in many East African coffee co-operatives. As a direct response to this, some women are establishing their own women-only cooperatives to ensure they have a more equal role to men in regards to financial access in coffee production.

Woman harvesting Coffee (Coffea arabica) cherries, carrying bucket on her head. Commercial coffee farm, Tanzania, East Africa. October 2011. Model released.

How does improving gender equity benefit the wider coffee industry?

Besides the obvious importance of improving gender equity to better support and embolden women and their families, there are a number of clear benefits for the global coffee industry.

It’s believed that across the Bean Belt, women lead somewhere between 5% and 30% of all coffee-growing households. This means that when access to education and resources improves for these women farmers, coffee quality and yields increase in turn.

The ICO estimates that closing the gender gap in coffee production could increase global output by up to 4% – the equivalent of 30 billion extra cups of coffee per year. And considering the ICO halved its 2020/21 global coffee surplus earlier this year, boosting global coffee production has never been so important.

Coffee production in some East African countries has also been waning in recent years, particularly Kenya and Tanzania, yet it still retains its importance for both countries’ economies.

Moreover, with an ageing coffee farmer population and the younger generations’ general lack of interest in coffee production, it’s clear that coffee production as a whole across East Africa would benefit from having more women in positions of leadership and decision making.

Woman coffee grower harvesting fresh coffee cherries on a farm on the foothills of Uganda's Mount Elgon, East Africa.

Lorraine expresses concern that in the face of so many difficulties, women in coffee production across East Africa may be reluctant to challenge the status quo.

“​Even educated women don’t have the chance to get more involved in coffee production,” she laments. “Burundian women haven’t been given the opportunity to see themselves in leadership roles.”

Ultimately, in order to create a truly sustainable global coffee industry, women need to be more involved in all aspects of the supply chain – including women in East Africa. While there is still certainly work to be done here, as there is elsewhere across the world, the growing presence of women-led and focused organisations provides some hope. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on women in coffee cooperatives.

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