December 14, 2022

How can social initiatives improve gender equity in coffee production?


According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, it will take around 132 years to achieve full global gender parity if we continue at the current rate. Naturally, this means there is significant progress to be made in closing the gender gap in many industries, which includes the coffee sector.

When we look at coffee production in particular, it is estimated that up to 70% of the labour is carried out by women. In spite of this, the economic benefits they see are often substantially lower than men working in coffee production.

Furthermore, if women working in agriculture were given equal access to financial resources, as well as decision-making and leadership roles, it’s believed that global agricultural output could increase by up to 4% – which includes coffee production.

And with the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) predicting that 2021/22 global coffee consumption will exceed global production by up to 3.1 million 60kg bags, finding ways to produce more coffee has never been more important.

To find out how social initiatives can improve gender equity in coffee production – and how these programmes benefit those working in the sector – we gathered some insights from people involved in Fairtrade-certified supply chains and programmes. Read on to find out more.

You may also like our article on women in East African coffee production.

Coffee farmer Dulcilene Rocha picks coffee cherries off a branch on her farm in Brazil.
Coffee farmer Dulcilene Rocha picks coffee cherries off a branch on her farm in Brazil.

Challenges for women in coffee production

There’s no denying that women working in coffee production face a number of unique and complex issues.

Despite playing a significant role in the labour involved in coffee production, women have comparatively diminished access to financial and educational resources in the coffee sector, and generally are less empowered to make decisions, hold leadership roles, and own land in a number of coffee-growing regions. In turn, this means women coffee workers typically earn significantly less money than their male counterparts

Justine Namayanja is a Senior Programme Officer at Fairtrade Africa. She is also the Gender Focal Point for the Fairtrade Eastern and Central Africa Network – a role which involves developing the organisation’s gender mainstreaming strategy.

“In many origin countries, coffee is a male-dominated sector,” she tells me. “Men are far more likely to own land, while women work on the land with their husbands and fathers.

“Ultimately, this means women have no access to ownership,” she adds. “Men decide how to sell the coffee, and only men are typically allowed to join co-operatives – not women.”

Justine explains that on top of pre-existing challenges which women face in coffee production, there are also social and cultural expectations in some origin countries that women should handle the vast majority of childcare and housework.

As a result, this means women have little time and resources to invest in their education and professional development (should they want to) – potentially reducing their chances of earning more money.

However, if we are to understand the extent of the challenges which women face in coffee production, we also need to recognise the difference between gender equality and equity.

In simple terms, equality means everyone receives the same treatment and access to resources and opportunities. 

Equity, meanwhile, accounts for both present and historic disadvantages and prejudices. For women, equity means receiving the right amount of support and the correct resources to ensure that they have the same access to the opportunities that men do.

Dr. Eduarda Cristovam is the Director of Coffee, Quality & Sustainability at Matthew Algie – a Glasgow roaster which sources Fairtrade-certified coffee. She recently also took part in a Women in Coffee panel discussion hosted by Fairtrade, which explored the challenges facing women coffee producers and potential ways of resolving them.

“In coffee production, women often have to stay in the background, and some of them are happy to not be at the forefront,” she explains. “This is largely because of very traditional social and cultural attitudes in certain origin countries, and they can be difficult to change.

“If we want coffee production to be truly sustainable then we must prioritise gender equity,” she adds.

Brazilian coffee producer Maria Paula Rocha holds cherries by some of her coffee plants.
Brazilian coffee producer Maria Paula Rocha holds cherries by some of her coffee plants.

Exploring gender-focused social initiatives at origin

There are a number of ways to improve gender equity in coffee production, but one of the most effective is through social initiatives. 

For instance, Fairtrade helps to empower and support women in coffee production in numerous different ways. According to research from Fairtrade, women account for only 25% of the smallholder coffee farmers it directly works with.

Justine, who works with 15 smallholder organisations in Uganda, explains how the Fairtrade Standards help to promote gender equity in coffee production.

“The Fairtrade Standards are not just a tool for improving gender equity, they are also a tool to empower women,” she says. “When they implement the Fairtrade Standards, producers are audited to make sure their policies are more inclusive of women.”

The Fairtrade Standards include no discrimination on the basis of gender or marital status, zero tolerance of sexually intimidating, abusive, or exploitative behaviour, and they require certified organisations to develop long-term gender policies.

“When implementing the Fairtrade Standards, we have certainly seen organisations improve their gender equity policies and programmes,” she adds.

Improving financial access 

Luzmila Loayza is part of the Cooperativa Agraria Frontera San Ignacio in Peru, which is also Fairtrade-certified. In 2016, its female members launched their own coffee brand, Las Damas de San Ignacio. 

Luzmila also took part in Faitrade’s Women in Coffee panel discussion.

She says that by establishing their own brand, the women improved their access to financial resources and diversified their income.

“It was empowering because it helped the women to find their own role within the co-operative,” she explains. “It also shows how hard they work, which you can tell by the quality of the coffee.

“It’s also important to highlight that achieving gender equity is not about competing with our male counterparts – it’s about men and women supporting each other,” she adds. “We all need to contribute to the success of the co-op, so that we can collectively grow higher-quality coffee.”

Encouraging more leadership and decision-making roles

At Ascarive, another Fairtrade-certified co-operative in Minas Gerais, Brazil which works directly with Matthew Algie, coffee farmer Dulcilene shares her perspective on the local gender-inclusive initiatives they have implemented. 

“We attend the women’s group, which hosts educational lectures and encourages the women a lot,” she says. She adds that prior to attending the group, some female members of the co-op would take more of a back seat.

“[Attending the group] helped those women who were more hidden and shy,” she explains. “It created opportunities for us to be less fearful and stop us thinking that we are not capable – it helped us to believe that we can achieve anything we want to.”

Liliane is the Treasurer at Ascarive, and has been working at the co-op for some eight years. 

She says her involvement with the co-operative has been transformative and improved her self confidence. Moreover, it has also helped to change misconceptions about women in leadership roles. Liliane explains that some ten years ago, she felt unseen and unheard by the men in her community.  

“Now, with the support of Fairtrade, I am an entrepreneur and I feel like an empowered woman,” she says. “I am very proud of being a small rural coffee producer.”

She also explains how holding a leadership position helped to encourage other female members. 

“I think my position at the co-operative made other women realise that they are also capable of holding these roles, too,” she says. “I now hope that my daughters will one day take my place.

“We want to work side by side with our husbands, fathers, brothers, and male counterparts,” she adds. “Everyone has their own role, but we need to grow together.”

A pile of ripe red and yellow coffee cherries in a wooden basket.
A pile of ripe red and yellow coffee cherries in a wooden basket.

Why do we need to improve gender equity in coffee production?

According to research from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), closing the gender gap in the global agricultural industry could relieve between 100 and 150 million people from hunger

Moreover, the same research states that when women have equal access to the same resources and agricultural inputs as men, crop yields can increase by up to 30%. 

Considering that the coffee industry is facing a number of challenges – including a decline in production in some origin countries and the ever-growing threat of climate change – improving gender equity could be one of the ways to boost coffee production.

“Improving gender equity can also help to meet the increasing demand for higher-quality coffee,” Justine explains. “By training women to carry out farming best practices, they can focus on improving quality, as well as their income.”

There’s no doubt that achieving gender equity in coffee production is a complex and lengthy process, but by addressing the current and potential future issues, organisations like Fairtrade can have a real positive impact on the lives of women coffee workers. Ultimately, this also means that their families and communities can benefit, too.

“Women invest a great deal into their childrens’ education,” Eduarda says. “In turn, children may see more of a future in coffee production for themselves.

“When you invest in women, you don’t just invest in them – you can have a significant influence on how a community or society develops,” she adds.

Liliane agrees, saying: “The more sustainable coffee production can be, the more our children will have a future in the industry.”

Farmers Liliane R.da Silva and Mauro Jose da Silva pick ripe cherries from their coffee plants.
Farmers Liliane R.da Silva and Mauro Jose da Silva pick ripe cherries from their coffee plants.

Looking to the future

In order for women working in coffee production to experience the full impact of gender-inclusive social initiatives like Fairtrade, there ultimately needs to be support from across the entire supply chain.

“Women’s financial empowerment will allow them to raise their voices as business partners,” says Justine. “More trust needs to be built between women and the people who buy their coffee. 

“We also need to see more women-focused coffee markets,” she adds. “Moreover, gender equity needs to become more normalised.”

Maria Paula is another member of Ascarive. She emphasises the important role that roasters and consumers play in helping to improve gender equity.

“It’s not just a cup of coffee – you are also a part of our stories and opportunities by buying and drinking our coffee,” she says. “You are giving each of our producers the opportunity to grow and develop, and see that their hard work is valued.”

“I would like to see more women taking on important roles in co-operatives and having more prevalent voices,” Luzmila says. “I would like to see more women being respected and listened to.”

Brazilian coffee farmer Liliane R.da Silva rakes natural processed coffee cherries.
Brazilian coffee farmer Liliane R.da Silva rakes natural processed coffee cherries.

Despite the many challenges which women face in coffee production, efforts are being made to improve gender equity, embolden women, and increase their access to a number of resources.

In time – with greater accessibility to education, farm inputs, and financial resources – women coffee producers could come to play an even greater role in supporting the longevity of a sustainable coffee sector, and take more ownership of the crop that they grow.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring the impact of long-term sustainable coffee sourcing.

Photo credits: Fairtrade

Perfect Daily Grind

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

Featured image caption: Coffee producer Liliane R. da Silva collects ripe coffee cherries on her farm in Brazil.

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