January 31, 2022

How does improving gender equity benefit coffee production?


According to a 2018 report from the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), only 20 to 30% of coffee farms across the world are operated by women. Despite this, approximately 70% of physical labour on these farms is carried out by women and girls.

In many cases, women in coffee production are significantly less likely to have access to land, decision-making, finance, and coffee knowledge than men. The social and economic barriers to these resources often hold women back, removing equal access and widening the gender equity gap.

As a result of these inequities, average coffee yields for women-operated farms can be as much as 25% lower than those owned and operated by men. So if gender equity were to improve in coffee-producing communities, would global coffee production rise?

To find out more, I spoke with three coffee professionals working to improve gender equity in coffee.

You may also like our article on gender equity in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s coffee sector.

women sorting green coffee

Gender equity issues in coffee production

In 2017, a report from the World Economic Forum found that the global gender gap had widened for the first time in over a decade. The report also noted that out of 192 countries, 50 still do not guarantee equal rights and opportunities for both men and women.

To understand gender equality, we must first bring gender equity into the equation. But how are they different?

Jennifer Yeatts is the Director of Coffee for Higher Grounds Trading Co., a B-Corp certified roaster in Michigan, US. 

Equality means everyone gets the same treatment, the same tools, and the same resources,” she explains. “However, equity means everyone gets what they personally need in order to achieve the same goal.” 

Chris Treter is the Director at Higher Grounds Trading. He adds to the definition.

“Equity takes into account the reality that communities and individuals face, depending upon their circumstances and the historical context they were born into,” he says. “Every individual has diverse needs and challenges they face, therefore they must have access to personalised support to meet these needs.”

Accounting for the disadvantages and prejudices that women and girls face (and thereby improving their access to resources and opportunities) is an essential part of closing the gender equity gap. 

“In the developing world, we are now seeing more cultures and societies adopt perspectives that respect gender diversity and inclusion,” Jennifer says. “While this is great, we need to apply those same principles in coffee-growing communities.”

Chris tells me of some of the issues that women face in coffee production.

“Women often do not have access to resources at an equal level compared to men, such as land, credit, and information,” he says. “This results in negative outcomes, including lower productivity and reduced farmer incomes.

“There is also reduced access to the building blocks which are crucial to operate effectively beyond these communities, too. For example, lower access to education than men leads to illiteracy, which in turn leads to a lack of access to financial resources.”

woman harvesting coffee

Why is achieving gender equity so important?

The latest report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that in 2021, global coffee consumption grew by 1.5 million bags, while global production fell by 8.5 million bags. 

If this trend continues over a long enough timeline, it could cause a global supply issue. However, closing the gender gap in coffee could help to boost production – by as many 30 million extra cups of coffee per year, according to some sources.

“If we can allow more farmers to achieve their harvest goals by providing a variety of tools for different individuals and their circumstances, more coffee will be produced and it will be produced at a higher quality,” Jennifer explains.

“In addition, more respect will grow across the supply chain and help us build long-term relationships that are based on trust and shared values.”

In line with this, research from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation notes that improving gender equity in global agriculture could increase crop yields up to 30%, including for coffee. 

However, to comprehensively address gender equity issues in coffee, we must first break down the challenges that women and girls often face.

“Many women in coffee production are at an increased risk of experiencing gender-based violence and a lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare,” Chris explains. “In addition, millions of girls around the world do not finish school.”

In Ethiopia, for example, it’s estimated that only 25% of girls attend secondary school. A lack of access to education will mean fewer opportunities to improve their livelihoods. In turn, research indicates that when women are unable to increase their income or be more involved in financial decision-making, the entire household suffers.

mixed gender coffee education

Focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo

While there are opportunities to improve gender equity in coffee supply chains across the world, Chris explains that Higher Grounds has shifted more of its focus towards countries in East Africa.

“Higher Grounds has strategically identified the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be one of the countries in the world that requires the most urgent aid and support,” he says. “It ranked 163rd out of 170 countries on the 2021 Women, Peace, and Security Index.”

Since becoming independent from Belgium in 1960, the country has experienced continued conflict, political instability, and civil unrest.

“In Eastern Congo, it is reported that there are at least 120 different militant groups based in three provinces, where all specialty coffee in the country is produced,” Chris explains.

“One of those groups is currently carrying out ongoing massacres in communities where our farmer partners from the Kawa Kanzururu co-operative live,” he adds. “In fact, a washing station was recently closed and its headquarters were moved because of the ongoing threat of violence.”

Herman Lwango is the Programme Coordinator for Higher Grounds’ partner non-profit organisation On The Ground in the DRC. He explains how women and girls are more vulnerable in the country.

“The DRC is now among the poorest countries in the world,” he says. “The United Nations reports that the country has the highest incidences of rape in the world.

“Women and girls are facing higher rates of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual exploitation. A cultural ‘dowry’ norm exists in which women are considered purchasable items.”

Over 56% of women and girls aged between 18 and 49 in the DRC have reported experiences of sexual violence

“According to historic cultural norms in the DRC, men often consider themselves to be superior to women,” Herman says. “This leads to the subordination of women in the household, which is a form of gender-based violence.

“In addition, a widespread lack of sex education and family planning information means that many women and girls give birth at young ages and are more exposed to sexually transmitted diseases.”

women learning about coffee in classroom

Supporting gender equity programmes

In 2015, research from the Specialty Coffee Association found that there was a significant economic gap between men and women in the East African coffee sector. On average, men surveyed earned over US $700 harvesting coffee, while women made less than US $450. 

To bridge this gap, Herman emphasises that including women in a greater number of leadership roles is imperative.

“Both women and men need to be informed about the importance of including women in decision-making processes,” he says. “In order for this to happen, girls must have better access to education, so they can study and end up with the same opportunities as men.”

Chris tells me more about the work that Higher Grounds and On The Ground are doing in the DRC to increase access to education for women in coffee.

“Both Higher Grounds and On the Ground support training and educational classes for women farmers,” he says. “In the DRC, we co-founded Saveur du Kivu – an annual supply chain conference and specialty cupping competition.”

Chris explains that Saveur du Kivu was launched following On the Ground’s Run Across Congo. This fundraising initiative saw nine women (five representing coffee companies) run seven marathons in seven days across the specialty coffee growing area of the DRC to raise money for and awareness of gender equity initiatives. He adds that this event was a springboard for OTG’s wider Gender Action Learning System (GALS) work.

Herman adds that including women in leadership positions at co-operatives can also help to improve coffee quality – which can ultimately lead to higher prices.

“At On The Ground, we have implemented a gender equity programme with the Muungano Coffee Cooperative,” he says. “We have 125 women in the Women Empowerment Group (WEG), with 25 women per group.”

He tells me more about how On The Ground’s programme is carried out in local communities. 

“The Gender Action Learning System (GALS) is a training programme implemented in different coffee-producing regions,” he says. “Muungano now meets twice per month, and includes both men and women in the meetings.

“The GALS programme has helped to implement a group savings and credit facility, as well as improving literacy skills for local women and young girls. It has also helped raise awareness about mitigating violence, promoted more positive associations about masculinity, and helped to develop new laws surrounding sexual violence.”

Supporting these cultural shifts towards more gender-inclusive attitudes helps women to obtain more financial and social independence, and be viewed as equal to their male co-workers.

“According to the members of the co-operative, this programme has helped many more women participate in decision-making processes,” Herman says.

woman with coffee trees

Benefiting the entire supply chain

It’s believed that around the world, women lead somewhere between 5% and 30% of all coffee-growing households. This means that when access to coffee education and agricultural resources improves for these women farmers, coffee quality and productivity increase in turn – meaning more high-quality coffee on the market.

Jennifer tells me about some of the coffees Higher Grounds offers which support gender equity projects. 

“The Awaken spring blend (available from April to June) supports OTG’s Project Congo and its gender equity and literacy programming,” she says. “But beyond On the Ground, we also love to feature microlots from women farmers within the producer co-operatives we buy from in other countries.

“For example, the COMSA co-operative in Honduras has a great programme for cultivating specially-processed lots and supporting members to find buyers for them,” she adds. “Currently, we have three microlots from the women of COMSA: Miriam Perez, Irma Garcia, and the recently-recognised Good Food Award winner Karla Portillo.”

With consumer interest in sustainable and ethically sourced coffee continuing to grow, sourcing coffee which supports gender equity around the world has never been more important.

“In supporting the development of women’s roles in coffee production, we have seen improvements in livelihoods and wider benefits in individual household wellbeing,” Chris explains. “Furthermore, by increasing access to education in coffee production, we are also able to strengthen climate resilience, as well as boosting farm productivity.”

Jennifer concludes by noting how important it is to acknowledge the unique experiences and needs of women and girls in coffee production when implementing gender equity projects.

“These programmes should always keep in mind the vast array of individuals and their diverse needs – across all genders – to present solutions that can be adapted for each individual.”

women in coffee

Despite the numerous challenges that women face across the global coffee supply chain, we are seeing progress towards gender equity. 

In time, with greater accessibility to education and women having more input over how coffee farms are operated, it’s likely that we will see farm quality and productivity increase, too – meaning better coffee for more people around the world.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on social initiatives in coffee-producing communities.

Photo credits: Herman Lwango, Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, Higher Grounds Trading Co.

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Higher Grounds Trading Co. is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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