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Coffee Grown by Women

One of the major challenges of the 21st Century is to recognise the value of female farmers in our food chains and to work on greater gender equality. Women should have the same access to choices, income and training as men.

Smallholders, not estates, produce most of the world’s coffee and some of the best too. Yet despite women often doing most of the work on the farm they can have little influence. Evidence shows that where women control household income the family’s health, nutrition and education improves at a faster rate because less money is spent outside the household.

In 2011, with our partner Twin Trading, we developed our range of Grown by Women coffees. These coffees are sourced directly from the female members of the co-operatives and are fully traceable. Back then we pondered for a long time on what to call this range of coffees. Women’s coffee didn’t quite sound right. So we decided on Coffee Grown by Women and created our little green logo.

The driver behind this range was two-fold. Firstly we wanted to make the invisible visible. Coffee drinkers have been unaware for decades of the level of work done by women farmers to bring us our daily cup of coffee. In our quest to bring farmers and consumers closer together we think this is an important story to tell. Secondly, we wanted to make a difference on the ground and promote gender justice. Despite doing up to 70% of work on the family farm in many cases, it is still mainly men that are members of the co-operatives, receive training and, crucially, receive payment for the green coffee beans. Women have been shut out of the decision making process in the household and the co-operative.  We wanted to work with co-operatives to develop gender policies and to find ways to enable women to become members in their own right. This can be harder than it sounds. In some regions women can find it hard, if not impossible, to legally own land. They also still carry the responsibility for the bulk of the work involved in running the household, preparing meals and with child care so getting to training sessions and attending meetings can be difficult for them with no-one willing or able to pick up the slack at home.

Building an individual’s self-confidence and changing an embedded culture can be a long and slow process. What is key is that these issues were brought to the fore by the coffee co-operatives themselves. This isn’t a western ideal that is being thrust upon unwilling people. Communities realised that although Fair Trade and other wider developments can bring benefits, women are being left behind.

By choosing to buy this coffee you are helping women, their families and wider communities in a very real way.

I am such a different person now to who I was before. I didn’t like to speak before and would always run away. I’d feel too shy to talk and would want to disappear. There are a lot of women who are too scared to become organised and go to meetings, these are the people who still need our help. This is why I will continue to work for our visibility and value

Norma, coffee farmer from Nicaragua

During the coffee harvest, we women work really hard. We have to pick, carry, pulp, ferment, sort, wash and dry the coffee. Despite all this hard work we love our jobs and the benefits they bring. I am a Board member of Gumutindo Co-operative and this responsibility means a lot to me. I have grown in confidence and I am proud to represent the co-operative and my community.

Justine Watalunga, Uganda

Some things in life can be complex. Fair trade can be complex, but when we at Equal Exchange discovered that the huge contribution women make in the production of coffee was still going unpaid and unrecognised, we felt that there had to be a solution. 

Small holder farmers produce the majority of the world’s coffee. And within that women’s work remains largely invisible, despite them doing 60-80% of the productive work. Not only don’t they gain financially, they are typically not included in decision making within their coffee co-operative, community or even household. This can, in part, be due to their workload but can also be due to their husband’s reluctance to let them participate, or their own lack of confidence. This is not just an issue for the women involved but for the communities themselves.

Reports produced by the UN and the World Bank have stated that gender equality makes good economic and social sense, and that when women control the household finances more money is spent within the household than outwith. This has implications across health, education, land ownership and entire communities. Also, agricultural policies and training are often targeted at men, but if women are trained properly not only should production increase but there could be improved food security for the world’s population. Simple steps can have far-reaching consequences.

So in 2011, with the help of our partner Twin Trading, we developed our “Grown by Women” range. We purchase coffee directly from women farmers that are members of the coffee co-operatives we already work with. This has helped empower women to join their co-operatives, take part in meetings and decision making and finally receive payment for the work that they do.

We pay a small women’s premium, and the women farmers decide themselves how this is distributed. It can go directly back to the farmers who produced the coffee as an incentive for more women to join, or it can be used as a fund to benefit the wider community.

We purchase from women farmer members of SOPEXXCA (Nicaragua), UNICAFEC (Peru) and Gumutindo (Uganda) and although our volumes are small, the impact is already being felt. The women themselves are feeling more confident and valued and are pleased that they have a voice which is heard at last.

In UNICAFEC, Peru they have been actively trying to improve the role of women within their co-operative. In 2006 there were 20 female members – now there are 73 and they have representation on the board.

In SOPEXCCA, Nicaragua there were five female members in 2005 and now there are over 280. In Gumutindo, Uganda, there are 76 female members – 13% of total members.

The projects the women’s premium has been spent on is varied, but all are inspiring and effective. In Nicaragua this has funded a mobile cervical screening unit. In Unicafec they have been replacing old stoves with efficient new ones.