Economic Empowerment of Women in Coffee
Image: Technoserve

Supporting the Economic Empowerment of Women in Coffee

By Cristina Manfre, Global Gender Director, TechnoServe

The contribution that women make to the coffee value chain often goes underappreciated and undercompensated. However, TechnoServe Global Gender Director Cristina Manfre argues that by shining a spotlight on the roles women play across the value chain, we can help them to improve their incomes and economic empowerment.

To Support the Economic Empowerment of Women in Coffee, We Must Make Their Work Visible.

“We didn’t understand that we could do it, that we [as women] could go out into our communities and be ourselves,” says Nay Aponte, a coffee grower in Peru’s Monzón Valley. She worked hard on the family coffee farm, but it was always her husband who would speak with coffee buyers and sell the crop.

Nay’s experience is similar to that of many women in coffee. The majority of the world’s coffee is grown by smallholder farming families, where women and men often work side-by-side to nurture and harvest the crop. But overwhelmingly, it’s men who hold formal title over the land, and this contributes to other inequalities in coffee: women are less likely to participate in farmer cooperatives, receive agricultural training and services, access credit to invest in their farm, market the crop, or control the earnings from coffee sales.

Addressing land tenure itself is difficult: it is hard to talk about significant redistribution when, in many places, farm sizes are already shrinking with each successive generation. So is coffee doomed as an avenue for supporting women’s economic empowerment?

Not at all. In the face of structural barriers, women’s contributions to coffee production too often go unseen and uncompensated. However, by shining a light on the role women play across the value chain, we can help them increase their incomes and economic empowerment–even with these barriers in place.

Highlighting the role of women coffee farmers

While women supply a large share of the labor in coffee production, this contribution frequently goes unrecognized. Addressing women’s lack of access to agronomy training and limited household decision-making power can help to address that.

In TechnoServe’s Coffee Farm College, for instance, we are deliberate in recruiting women and men as both participants and focal farmers who model good agricultural practices in their communities, and in delivering training that does not reinforce stereotypes about which farm activities are “men’s work” and “women’s work.” During training, both men and women learn how to implement regenerative agricultural practices, including composting and mulching, and are encouraged to share how women’s participation strengthens family livelihoods.

To promote more equitable decision-making about the farm and finances, programs can directly engage households in discussion about gender-related issues. In the CAFE Alliance, a USAID initiative implemented by TechnoServe to improve the livelihoods of coffee growers in Peru, “family engineers” have worked with more than 1,000 families to explore how they can better distribute household and farm chores, improve communication, and increase women’s participation in household decision-making.In East Africa, TechnoServe has created opportunities in our coffee programs, where women and men are able to speak–among themselves and between groups–about gender-related topics.

By ensuring that women are visible as coffee farmers and are able to build their agronomy skills, confidence, and voice in decisions about the farm and household finances, we can help them increase their income and access to resources.

Increasing women’s leadership in coffee value chains

Women’s role in coffee value chains–and the need to highlight it–does not end at the farm gate. It’s important to bring women into more formal and visible roles across the coffee value chain.

Promoting women’s leadership within cooperatives and producer organizations can help to ensure that all member farmers and workers have their voices and perspectives represented. These groups are overwhelmingly led by men, while women provide the bulk of labor in activities like drying the coffee processed at cooperative wet mills.

TechnoServe creates spaces for women in coffee-farming communities to explore their own power and influence, their preferred leadership styles, and strategies for leading to empower others. In Peru, producer organizations where TechnoServe has provided this support increased the share of leadership roles held by women from 28% to 40%, with organizations that have elected new boards filling at least half the positions with women.

Focusing on women’s capacity and capabilities however is not enough. Cooperatives, wet mills and other businesses need to create space for women to contribute. This means engaging the leadership–men and women–at cooperatives, wet mills, and other businesses in understanding and recognizing the value of supporting inclusive and sustainable business practices. Increasing leadership’s awareness of the benefits of women’s inclusion in their businesses can lead to the adoption of business practices which support dignified opportunities for women as workers, members, and leaders beyond solely the production aspects of the value chain.

Finally, programs’ own hiring decisions can impact the role of women in the coffee value chain. We make a point of recruiting and training women agronomists and business advisors in our programs. Not only does this help increase the participation of women farmers in our programs and counter gender stereotypes in the community, it also creates a cadre of women who go on to apply their expertise in the public and private sectors.

In Rwanda, Joy Tushabe served as a business advisor supporting cooperatives to improve their operations. The experience unlocked her own entrepreneurial spirit, and she decided to found a private wet mill to purchase and market coffee from local farmers. “I love doing something that can help poor people in rural areas—especially women,” she said.

“I feel capable”

Collectively, these changes across the value chain can support women’s livelihoods. At TechnoServe, these approaches have helped us increase the share of women among the farmers benefiting from our coffee programs, rising to 35% in 2023 from 30% in 2022.

In Peru, Nay participated in the CAFE Alliance and an initiative called Mujeres CAFÉ, funded by the Starbucks Foundation, which provides leadership training to women coffee farmers, helping them develop personal effectiveness, collective agency, and communication skills.

The experience has given her the confidence and opportunity to take a more active and visible role in her family’s coffee activities. “Now, I go out…I feel capable,” Nay says. She sees changes in her community. “We are women who are leaders, empowered. We manage our finances not just in the household, but in the community.”

By making visible the contributions of Nay and millions of other women in the coffee value chain, we can help them increase their incomes and economic empowerment. When women have income and decision-making power, they can transform their communities and dismantle the barriers that limit their opportunities.

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