The role of women in coffee is vital yet often overlooked. While women provide 70% of the labour on farms, only 20-30% of coffee farms are women-owned. This contradiction highlights the stark gender gap in coffee but what does this mean for the communities and countries where coffee is grown?
The Gender Imbalance in Coffee
Coffee cultivation, and most other agricultural practices, are largely male-dominated. Women-led farms frequently face challenges with land acquisition, financing, social support, and education. Yet we are faced with a stark contradiction: women’s labour largely runs coffee farms while women are rarely owners and rarely reap the true rewards of their labour.
A lack of access to credit, education, and land put women farmers at a disadvantage. The gender gap manifests itself in differences in yield and farm profits which perpetuates a cycle that continually leaves women coffee growers behind in the wider coffee market.
Male dominance in coffee farming is largely a result of centuries of patriarchal cultures that have kept women financially and socially dependent on men. For many cultures in the coffee belt, owning a farm and being the breadwinner is still primarily seen as a ‘man’s job’ while the women are merely workers.
Even when women do own land (which is also a development from the times when women couldn’t inherit or own property), they face numerous financial and social challenges that limit their potential. Gender violence, a lack of decision-making power, and a lack of access to resources are the major roadblocks towards a gender-equal coffee sector.
Addressing these challenges benefits not only the women but also their families, communities, and the coffee industry as a whole. Numerous studies indicate that women are more likely than men to spend on education and nutrition for their families. This benefits the whole community and underscores the importance of women having access to productive inputs such as land, capital, and technical training.
Bringing about gender equality in coffee starts with culturally relevant solutions that are specific to different communities. Blanket solutions fail to address the complexity of gender inequality and the best, most sustainable solutions will always be those that are tailored to the communities it aims to help.
Learning From Other Industries
Of course, coffee isn’t the only crop that faces gender inequality, and it certainly isn’t the only cash crop with this issue. From cacao to tea to spices, gender inequality is a persistent issue. However, some other industries have taken steps to bridge the gap and the coffee sector could potentially implement similar strategies as well.
One such industry is the shea butter industry. Shea butter is obtained from the shea nut and the largest producers are Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Much like coffee, shea butter is produced in the global south and primarily exported to the global north, particularly the E.U. While the shea industry isn’t perfect, it has still made more progress in promoting gender equality compared to the coffee sector.
Colloquially called “women’s gold”, shea butter production is dominated by women. Harvesting and processing shea nuts are labour-intensive, with women walking miles and miles carrying heavy harvests. Moreover, the division of labour is highly gendered, and women are solely responsible for picking and harvesting the nuts. Men in these communities consider this work to be beneath them and so the labour is carried out by women while the men might own the land or the trees. However, since women are the majority of the supply chain in shea butter production, there are more programmes and initiatives to help them overcome systemic discrimination.
Progress in the Shea Industry
Initially, women made very little from harvesting and selling shea nuts. Furthermore, women had no control over the export of the final product and were limited to selling small quantities while men controlled the export and marketing. In the 1990s, when shea exports were accelerating, many women in producing countries were illiterate and lacked access to credit to modernise their operations. As a result, the nuts were sold to middlemen who would export the nuts for further processing. In this way, the lion’s share of profits went to middlemen and foreign exporters instead of the women who harvested and cultivated the crop.
In 1994, as conditions in the sector and farmer communities worsened, numerous organisations stepped in to help including UNIFEM, Centre Canadien d’étude et de coopération internationale (CECI), and the government of Taiwan. Following intensive research and reviews in producer countries, these organisations assisted women’s groups in boosting their production and connecting them directly to the export market. In addition, the women were also given financial aid and technical training. The formation of cooperatives and women’s associations have further helped women gain a voice in their industry.
The shea industry shows us that empowering women through education, credit, and land ownership can boost yields while helping communities thrive and progress. Shifting power dynamics through financial literacy, education, and training is a great first step towards bridging the gender gap on farms, whether shea or coffee.
Sipi Falls and Empowering Ugandan Women Farmers
Around 80% of Uganda’s population is rural and a vast number are involved in coffee farming. Coffee is a major contributor to the Ugandan economy, accounting for 20-30% of the country’s annual foreign exchange earnings.
Women comprise the largest share of the labour force with women being 58% of the labour during fieldwork and 72% of the labour during post-harvest handling. Despite this, men still control the processing and marketing of coffee and so they have access to the economic benefits of coffee while the women do not. Addressing this gap is crucial to a gender-equal coffee industry.
Women in Uganda face unequal access to the market due to unequal access to resources such as land and credit. Land ownership in particular is a major barrier for Ugandan women farmers. Under cultural norms, women don’t typically inherit land or family property. This limits their ability to access loans, control production, and make decisions regarding sales and profits. Despite government intervention, women still have limited land rights due to societal norms.
Furthermore, coffee is seen as a man’s crop. Women are often involved in farming food crops for the household, rather than farming cash crops such as coffee. Women have control over the production of food crops but have little or no decision-making power when it comes to cash crops.
One of the chief methods of promoting women farmers in Uganda is improving access to collectives and cooperatives. Projects such as Sipi Falls help women with training, credit, and processing. Currently, there are 2000 smallholder farms in Sipi Falls owned exclusively by women. Cooperatives such as Sipi Falls help women receive a fair wage and a fair price for their coffee while also giving them the social and financial support they need to compete in the market.
Financial literacy and technical training have always been core activities for Sipi Falls and this has greatly empowered the women in the area to take ownership of their land and direct the outcomes of their own labour.
Removing the barriers that limit women’s participation in coffee farming is a goal on par with larger sustainability goals. Achieving gender equality is a global mission and one of the seventeen goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations.
Studies show that development initiatives that target women’s economic potential have a greater overall impact on community living standards, while also raising farm productivity. The International Coffee Organisation predicts that closing the gender gap could boost global agricultural output by 2.5-4% – which is an extra 30 billion cups of coffee per year.
Bridging the gender gap doesn’t just benefit women but entire communities. Furthering gender equality in the coffee industry will be a major step forward for coffee communities around the world.