• Sustainability and gender


    Most if not all sustainability initiatives pay considerable attention to social and labour issues but status of women in the coffee sector is generally not singled out. In fact the 2010 SSI Review found that only one out of the ten initiatives it assessed listed gender governance as a requirement, 4 listed women’s labour rights and 3 listed women’s health and safety. Of course the assumption may well be that general attention to labour rights and other social aspects in the coffee sector also takes care of this. But even so, this does not really do justice to the important role so many women actually play.

    In 2008 the International Trade Centre (ITC) made a survey on the role of women in the coffee sector. 25 persons, mainly women, in 15 coffee producing countries, provided information. The survey showed considerable differences between individual coffee producing countries with, for example, women doing very little field and harvest work in Brazil (highly mechanized and often alternative jobs for women) to as much as 90% in some African countries (nearly all manual), and women playing only a small role in in-country trading in most countries whereas in Vietnam this is around 50%. Admittedly data gathering was limited but persons in 15 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America responded to a small questionnaire. This at least made it possible to indicate a kind of ‘typical’ role of women in the industry.

    Table 1. Women’s employment in the coffee sector 

    Women in the workforce in % of total 


    Low – high 


    Field work … 

    10 – 90 


    Harvest … 

    20 – 80 


    Trading in-country … 

    5 – 50 


    Sorting … 

    20 – 95 


    Export … 

    0 – 40 


    Others  (certifications, laboratories, …) 

    5 – 35 


    Female ownership in the value chain in coffee producing countries is also variable but generally modest at all levels. Of course ownership is difficult to describe for several reasons, for example the distinction between ownership and user-rights is sometimes unclear as is co-ownership for married couples The findings showed significant variations but simplified one could say that women typically own around 15% of land, traded products (coffee) and companies related to coffee in coffee producing countries.

    Table 2. Women’s ownership in the coffee sector 

    Women’s ownership in % of total 

    including co-ownership 


    Low – high 


    Land used for coffee production 

    - including user rights 

    5 - 70 


    Coffeewhen harvested  

    2 – 70 


    Coffeewhen traded domestically 

    1 - 70 


    Companies in the coffee sector (exporters, laboratories, certifiers, transportation…) 


    1 - 30 



    Women’s associations and other organizations in the coffee sector

    Prossibly the most opportune way in which to advance women and promote women’s rights in the coffee sector is through women’s associations. Where there is joint agreement on objectives, where issues and matters of particular interest to women can be discussed freely, and where there is an absence of peer pressure. The potential of such associations is receiving increasing attention from donor organizations with an interest in gender issues and it is becoming more common to find specific gender components in coffee sector projects.

    But to note also that women are also active in micro-finance societies, linked to the coffee industry. For example the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Micro Finance Society Ltd in Uganda of whose shareholders 85% are women who are engaged in coffee growing – www.bukonzocoop.com.  Savings and Loan schemes for women in the coffee sector are an equally important route – see for example www.foundationforwomen.org. Or the Women’s Microfinancing Initiative (WMI) – www.wmionline.org.

    Women’s coffee associations were first initiated in the United States in 2002. After a modest start since about 2009 there has been encouraging growth. The following lists both associations and other initiatives with an interest in promoting gender issues in the coffee sector – list not necessarily inclusive though. 

    • International Women’s Coffee Alliance, IWCA, www.womenincoffee.org coordinates information sharing and training of women. It has charters or sister-organizations primarily in Central America.    
    • Café Femenino Foundation, www.cafefemeninofoundation.org (see www.coffeecan.org) commenced by assisting poor communities in Peru. It currently works in around ten countries in Latin America and is now turning to Africa as well. 
    • The Coffee Quality Institute, CQI, www.coffeeinstitute.org offers a leadership programme with mentors (from the Unites States) and fellows primarily in Central America and South America. Availability depends on funding which, currently, is restricted.  

    National women’s associations in the coffee sector are most prominent in Central America: 

    • Costa Rica    Alianza de Mujeres en café de Costa Rica  
    • El Salvador –  Alianza de Mujeres en café de El Salvador (AMES) 
    • Guatemala    Asociacion de Mujeres en café de Guatemala http://www.mujerescafeguatemala.org/  
    • Nicaragua     Flores del café – Movimiento de Mujeres cooperadas. 

    A few other countries have small national or in-country regional associations or women’s groups in the coffee sector for example: Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Kenya and India. Colombia alone has 17 women’s organizations in the coffee sector.

    Worth mentioning here is also the valuable work done by Grounds for Health, www.groundsforhealth.org. GFH is a not-for-profit organization founded to provide healthcare services to women in coffee-growing communities. GFH offers cervical cancer screening and treatment in Mexico and Central American countries and recently extended its work to coffee-growing communities in Tanzania.

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