Coffee producers in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Colombia face a multitude of challenges: rising production costs, labour and land shortages, climate change, and market volatility that has seen the coffee price dive in recent times.
It's women who bear the brunt of increasing poverty and social disadvantage all along the global coffee supply chain, particularly in the primary production stage.
In the coffee industry, women make up a significant proportion of the labour force but are under-represented in leadership and decision-making roles. They also do more unpaid labour and domestic work and often have limited access to education and justice.
A 2016 UN report found that "rural women and girls tended to be less educated than men and boys, with less access to information, skills, training and labour markets, while facing greater risks of violence, child, early and forced marriage and harmful practices."
The road to female empowerment
Women-led cooperatives have emerged as a potent tool for female empowerment in nearly every coffee-growing region on the planet. According to an IMF report, increasing gender equality boosts economic growth and stability and leads to a cascade of other benefits, including improved health outcomes for women and children.
"She will work often 12 hours a day, tending the coffee bushes and attending to household duties...She has no time of her own and no property or money of her own."
In Kenya, agronomist Marion Ngang'a is the driving force behind advocacy group Fairtrade's Growing Women in Coffee project. In an article for Fairtrade, Ng'ang'a describes the life of a typical woman on a Kenyan coffee plantation. Historically, she would work first on her father’s farm and then on her husband's farm once married. "She will work often 12 hours a day, tending the coffee bushes and attending to household duties. This includes fetching firewood, cooking and cleaning. She has no time of her own and no property or money of her own."
In 2012, that began to change when Samson Koskei, the chairman of the Kabng'etuny cooperative in the highlands west of the Kenyan Rift Valley, gave his wife ownership of some of their farm’s coffee bushes. This gift meant that she was able to join the cooperative and, for the first time, earn her own income.
Membership of the cooperatives delivered immediate benefits for female coffee farmers and their families. For the first time, women were financially independent with the means to pay for their children’s school fees and buy essentials like much-needed sanitary products.
At the same time, the Growing Women in Coffee program supplied households with biogas units to replace wood-fired stoves. It meant that women no longer had to spend 20 hours a week collecting increasingly scarce firewood to fuel fires that created health problems due to their smoke.
In 2018, the Kabnge'tuny and Kapkiyai cooperatives released the first-ever Kenyan coffee grown exclusively by women. They called it Zawadi, the Swahili word for gift, a nod to both the initial offering of the coffee bushes that allowed women to join the cooperatives and the gift of economic independence that followed.
On the other side of the globe, women in Indonesia have similarly benefited from joining female-led coffee cooperatives.
Rizkani Melati is the chairwoman of Koperasi Kopi Wanita Gayo, known as Kokowagayo, a female coffee cooperative founded in 2014 and based in Bener Meriah in Sumatra's Aceh Province. Located on the jungle-covered slopes of the Gayo Mountains, the 500-hectare Kokowagayo estate produces high-grade speciality organic coffee.
Melati tells SBS Food, from her home in Bener Meriah, "At first it was difficult to get permission from our husbands, but slowly they started to understand and support the women because they know that the cooperative gives them education and training to increase their knowledge about coffee."
Intan Wahyoe, a program officer at the Fairtrade Network of Asia and Pacific Producers, says most coffee farms in the Aceh region are managed jointly between a wife and her husband.
While farm work is traditionally a man's domain, women perform many roles in the production of coffee, from pruning and harvesting to sorting. The Kokowagayo cooperative provides its 500 members with training in areas such as planting and processing to close gaps in women’s skills.
Female-run cooperatives like Kokowagayo also direct funds into creating programs and services aimed at women. The Kokowagayo co-op built a community centre above the wet mill where women can gather and attend training sessions and funded a cervical cancer screening program.
Another Central Aceh cooperative, Arinagata, runs a local preschool for the children of coffee plantation workers. Arinagata's secretary, Mahayana Sari, is one of two women on the cooperative's three-member board. Of Arinagatas 2,165 members, 400 are women.
"I enjoy my job because I love coffee very much," says Mahayana. "I can also influence the cooperative to do things not only for men but also for women."
Fairtrade’s Wahyoe says she wants to see more women like Melati and Sari take leadership roles in their communities to gain valuable skills in business and management.
"We are trying to encourage more female farmers to be delegates for their cooperatives," says Wahyoe. "We hope they can voice their needs, their concerns, and their aspirations in the general assemblies, so women's voices will be heard."
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