promoting gender equality in the coffee industry means empowering women farmers and small agribusiness owners

Women play an essential role in the success of small farms and agricultural businesses around the world. But despite the vital role of women farmers, they continue to face inequality and obstacles to earning a decent living. Guillaume Le Cunff, CEO of Nespresso, William Warshauer, CEO of TechnoServe, and Mefthe Tadesse, East Africa Regional Director for TechnoServe, discuss ways to promote gender equality in coffee farming. 

gender equality in coffee farming

gender equality is essential to promote for women coffee farmers

Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published on LinkedIn for International Women’s Day.

Over the decades that the three of us have spent in the coffee and development sectors, one of the most rewarding experiences is always hearing the life stories of the incredible coffee farmers we work with. Every one of these experiences makes us stop, think, and re-evaluate how we do business and how we can better serve these coffee-growing communities.

Take Tigist Wube.

A coffee farmer in southern Ethiopia, she works hard to provide for her family. She uses the proceeds from the family’s small coffee farm to pay for her children’s school fees, clothing, and food. But as her coffee trees grew older and less productive, the proceeds from each harvest were decreasing. Despite these challenges, Tigist refused to give up and set herself the task of turning the situation around.

Tigist is not just a one-off story. In communities like Tigist’s, women are a vital part of the successful running of farms and agricultural businesses, with roughly half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural labour force being female.

Looking at the whole coffee value chain, we see women involved in every step, from tending to the plants to harvesting and processing the coffee to managing cooperatives. Without the work of these women, the coffee that we all rely on each morning would never reach us.

Despite the vital role of female farmers, they continue to face inequality and obstacles to earning a decent living. Globally, women have less access to land, farming tools, seedlings, loans, and training. They are less likely to be able to join a cooperative or to rise through its ranks to a leadership position. As a result of these inequities, the average production on women-led farms can be up to 25% lower than on those led by men. That is why closing this gap is so important to all of us.

Studying the Roots of Inequality

Nespresso first established a global gender equality strategy as part of the AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program in 2017, which brought to light the need for more information across different regions and clusters. Because of this, and together with international development non-profit TechnoServe and other supporting partners, we developed the AAA Gender Analysis Tool, designed to unearth the insights needed to empower women.

Practically speaking, this involved interviewing hundreds of individual women and men in the farming communities we work in; offering opportunities to speak freely without influence from their spouse. And helping us to better understand household dynamics in specific communities.

In particular, the results from the interviews conducted in Sidamo, Ethiopia were stark. In fact, 95% of the women hadn’t finished primary school and over half had received no education at all – ultimately impacting their chances for success and most of all, increased confidence.

Gender equality is more than good business: it’s everyone’s human right

Gender equality is a fundamental human right, but we also know a more equitable society is one that is significantly more productive and therefore better for everyone.

Halaku Galchu, a leader in the Horte Gunda cooperative in Ethiopia, put it well: “Women can introduce new ideas and ways of thinking about the enterprise and coffee business and be part of the business success. The economic participation of only the husband is a burden like carrying a quintal [100 kilograms] of coffee alone or working with one hand rather than two.”

Improving the gender balance in coffee farming cannot be achieved overnight. There are barriers to greater involvement of women in coffee heavily ingrained in social norms that need to be overcome. For example, in the Ethiopian Sidamo Dara region, where low literacy and traditional gender roles have proven to be a key driver of gender inequality, we are aiming to implement increased gender awareness and financial management training to encourage joint household decision-making as well as a basic literacy program.

And whilst it remains true that every region must be considered individually, one resoundingly unanimous finding from our research was the need to ensure that all agronomists (female and male) are gender sensitized, actively increasing gender equality and empowering women.

Leading the way to Gender Equality

We believe it’s our duty of care to better serve these communities, which is why in 2018 we collaborated with KIT Royal Tropical Institute to develop a program for our AAA agronomists, called Catalysts for Gender Transformative Change. Designed as part of the AAA Program´s Gender Equality Strategy, the program aims to educate agronomists on gender equality in coffee supply chains, through training and development.

Taught over six months, regional gender trainers work with agronomists to educate and identify how to be aware of gender inequalities in the field, whilst recognizing the critical role of women in coffee production. Agronomists become equipped with the necessary skills to increase women’s access to knowledge, participation and learning, strengthening the attitudes and behaviors for a more equal society.

Currently rolled out in seven countries, including Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, and India, it is our aim to expand to all AAA countries. By the end of 2020, over 225 agronomists have successfully completed the program, with that number only set to grow in 2021.

understanding and promoting gender quality in the coffee sector - decorative image - Fruit on the vines

A tool for all, not the few

As we all know, achieving more gender equality in agriculture is a task for us all – no single organization can make it happen alone. And despite an increase in female agronomists globally from 29% in 2016 to 32% in 2020, we still have a long way to go in empowering women to take on these roles. Our ambition is, obviously, to reach 50%, with a first 40% milestone by 2025.

And we’ve made the study and analysis tool available for general use. We encourage every agricultural organization to make use of the information we’ve gathered – and will continue to gather – so that together we can drive a change in mindset and behaviour that will positively impact the sustainability of coffee quality and coffee sourcing.

It is because of these efforts, we’re able to see first-hand the impact on the ground. Taking us back to Tigist Wube in southern Ethiopia, she joined the AAA program and learned new approaches for managing her coffee farm. Applying what she learned from the AAA agronomist, she rejuvenated her old coffee trees: cutting them down to the stump so that they would grow back stronger and more productive.

The transformation on her farm has been dramatic. In 2016, she harvested only 500 kilograms of coffee; by 2020, that number increased to 7,500 kilograms. Not only was she able to cover the family’s basic expenses, she was able to build a new, modern home. “I am stable and happier than ever before,” she said.

You can find the Nespresso AAA Gender Analysis Tool here.