Gender Inequities In The Global Coffee Supply Chain


Global coffee consumption is on the rise with trade statistics from the International Coffee Organization (ICO) indicating world coffee exports have grown from 9.13 million bags in 2016 to 10.9 million bags in 2019. In the recent decade, women’s role in the global coffee supply chain has gained traction as an upcoming issue in the gender equity discussion. Globally, it is estimated that 25 million smallholder coffee farmers produce 80 percent of the world’s coffee. Women contribute much of the labour on these farms, playing a central role in the cultivation and processing of the coffee that many of us enjoy on a daily basis. Despite this, little research exists on women’s role in the global coffee supply chain. However, the limited data available suggests women are often excluded from decision-making and leadership roles and enjoy less access to resources such as training, income and land. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) posit that women are less likely than men to own land, and when land is owned, plots tend to be smaller and of lower quality.

The World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) identify land and tenure security as a key factor for development in the global south and state its importance for women in particular as female-headed households grow increasingly common. Studies reveal that female-headed households in the agricultural industry are at greater risk of poverty as a result of minimal access to land, labour and inputs, with smallholder and landless farmers constituting an estimated 90 percent of the world’s rural poor as of 2005. A report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization and Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ending poverty: Learning from Good Practices of Small and Marginal Farmers, in 2013 states, ‘‘the landless or land-poor are often the poorest of the poor, with a high proportion of these people being women.’’

The ICO defines Africa, Asia, Central America and South America as the world’s main coffee-exporting regions. According to the Learning from Good Practices of Small and Marginal Farmers report, women’s labour makes up the following percentage of the workforce in the agricultural industry: in Latin America 20 percent, in Asia 30 percent to 60 percent, and in Sub-Sahara Africa 50 percent to 75 percent. However, accurate statistics on women’s participation in the coffee industry are not as easily accessible. A report released in 2019 by Priscilla Fisher, a roaster for Australia-based Floozy Coffee, Women’s Land Rights, Processes of Empowerment, and Data Needs in the Coffee Global Value Chain, details the lack of reliable data surrounding women’s participation in the global coffee supply chain. In her report, she presents conflicting statistics.

Previous senior adviser on the United Nations’ coffee projects, economist and author, Morten Scholer, estimated in 2008 that, on average, women were responsible for as much as 70 percent of labour in coffee fieldwork and harvesting, 75 percent of coffee sorting, and between ten and 20 percent of trade related activities. In addition, Scholer estimated women owned only 20 percent of the land used for coffee farming and ten to 15 percent of the coffee produced. Individual country studies supported by the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) reveal a slightly different trend. Instituto del Café de Costa Rica (ICAFE) estimated that as of 2013, 34 percent of producers were female; the Consejo in El Salvador estimated that as of 2013, 33 percent of coffee producers were female; Ancafe (Guatemala) estimated that as of 2017, 19-22 percent of coffee producers were female; the Instituto Hondurevo del Café Registro Nacional de Productores estimated that as of 2016, 19 percent of coffee producers were female; the Institute de Statistiques Et D’Etudes Economiques du Burundi estimated that as of 2007, 20 percent of coffee producers were female; Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board estimated that as of 2015, 32 percent of coffee producers were female; and Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia estimated that as of 2015, 30 percent of coffee producers were female. Individual country studies supported by the IWCA did not provide any statistics on women’s ownership of land or coffee.

There has been a large push in the coffee industry — particularly within specialty coffee — to trade with, and support farmers and processors that practice sustainable farming, and can ensure good conditions for workers. Many roasters within the specialty coffee industry either sources from sustainable importers or practices Direct Trade – a process where roasters communicate directly with farmers and remove the intermediary processes, often foregoing the power imbalances that can exist within trading relationships between the West and developing countries. It is now not uncommon for consumers to have fact sheets provided to them with their coffee, detailing information on what varietal of bean they are drinking, what country and region the bean comes from, where the bean was processed and on which farm the bean was grown. Despite these efforts, and while conflicting statistics exist surrounding the issue, there is enough evidence to suggest the benefits of these sustainable farming practices have not reached everyone, in particular women.

The UN Gender Equity Index of 2017 suggests gender gaps are among the widest in the coffee-growing nations along the equator, including countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Indonesia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The Coffee Quality Institute’s (CQI) The Way Forward: Accelerating Gender Equity in the Coffee Value Chains released in 2015 conducted research in Colombia, Nicaragua, Uganda and Indonesia. Its key findings were that women do not enjoy equal access to resources, assets land and equipment; they are not given an equal voice in decisions impacting coffee production and household matters, despite the work they contribute to coffee farms. The crop is often considered to be a “man’s crop” and women have less control over income from coffee sales, and women are under-represented in the leadership of community, cooperative and producer groups.

The causes, and even severity, of these gender imbalances, vary across different coffee-growing countries, however, some common themes of potential factors have presented themselves throughout the literature. Often women are pushed into reproductive roles where they spend the majority of their time on domestic and other care activities such as childcare, water and food collection, and cooking. As a result, they often do not have time to attend training programs on coffee or further their education. An increased level of education in coffee for men then often means they naturally control the family income and make financial decisions on the farm and are appointed to higher positions in decision-making committees such as chairperson, general secretary or treasurer, and therefore, have greater access to resources and are more likely to have their voice heard. Another difficulty commonly experienced by women within the smallholder coffee industry is the acquisition of land. Women in rural households often acquire land through inheritance, marriage, government redistribution, and land markets. The literature has found that in many rural areas of coffee growing regions, persistent social biases exist that give preference over men when awarding inheritance, while government regulations on the inheritance of and joint custody of land through marriage and the participation inland markets are often superseded by local customs that again favour men due to perceived gender roles in society.

The implications of social and economic marginalization of women not only in the coffee industry but also in the household leaves them and their families vulnerable to greater implications. Women are less likely to have say in household matters, while they and their families are more likely to be victims of violence and less likely to have access to education and basic health care services.

The Coffee Quality Institute developed a lengthy list of recommendations to encourage improvement in current gender gaps in the global coffee supply chain. These recommendations call for action by actors throughout the entire supply chain: farmers, processors, exporters, importers, certifiers, trade organizations, roasters, café managers, retailers, baristas, and consumers.

From a government level, the institute places great importance on forging partnerships and coordination for greater action among industry stakeholders and creating accessible pathways for smallholder farmers to access the global market. Government action through land titling programs and legislative frameworks that increase women’s formal ownership of land are also encouraged. Increasing women’s participation in training programs and adjusting programs to make them gender-sensitive is another recommendation of the study. In order to achieve this, the Institute recommends local governments invest in programs to reduce time pressures for women, such as water pumps while advocating for shared household responsibilities. Another recommendation encourages companies and lenders to increase women’s access to credit and assets while shifting a large degree of focus away from ownership of land as a criterion for loans. Furthermore, the report advocates for a shift away from established views that men handle the income in the family and awarding women greater ownership and control over income and resources at the household level. Shared power and responsibility in leadership and decision-making positions throughout the production of coffee will allow women to advocate for their needs and have their ideas heard.

Significant role exporters, importers and roasters can play is sourcing and marketing coffee from farms and processors that produce coffee under conditions of gender equity. The Institute found that many organizations displayed interest and saw potential in promoting gender equity, but had not yet made this issue a priority. To resolve this, it is recommended a List of Gender Equity Principles for Coffee be developed, comparable to the UN Global Compact sustainable business guidelines, that can be followed by all actors in the industry. As mentioned previously, there is a lack of research on the issue and this vacuum makes it difficult to build resolutions to the issue; thus the institute believes much more research is needed to build a foundation for solid resolutions and better understand coffee production and practices in each regional context. Finally, consumers have the power to shape the supply chain through being aware and making informed decisions of the product they are buying when drinking their daily coffee. Consumer demand has the ability to shape the coffee market in a way that is not only sustainable but also gender equitable.

Katherine Everest