Coffee and gender justice – one and the same?

For many of us, this comes as quite a piece of news. We all know to strive for gender equality, but one might ask, how is this relevant to coffee quality and specialty coffee in particular? And more importantly, what can I – as an actor of the value chain – do about it?

These are all questions that Twin, in partnership with producer organisations, aims to answer on a daily basis. This post is an excerpt into the work I was conducting recently in Africa, which I originally wrote for the organisation’s blog and tuned for this blog.

And what better forum to engage the other actors than the African Fine Coffee Association conference? Twin led the discussion on best practices for gender justice and its impact on the coffee in your cup, looking at every level of interaction – within the household, within producer organisations, within our local stores and cupboards, and finally within international certification. For a day, we looked at how each of these levels is a piece of the puzzle, a step of the way to promoting true gender equality.

I was lucky enough to be amongst these fantastic actors of change, and wanted to share with you some of the key points of the discussions.

At the household level – it is clear that for women to be able to lead meaningful lives, they must have economic ownership and decision-making power within their household. Representatives from Bukonzo Joint Cooperative (Uganda), Vuasu Cooperative Union (Tanzania), and Cooperative Agricole Muungano (DRC) joined us to explain how the Gender Action Learning System (GALS) tools has helped them achieve greater gender balance within the community, allowing women to take their first steps as economically recognised members of society.

donatillaDonatilla Nsimire Minani from Muungano tells us how, as a girl she had received schooling up to 2nd year of secondary school, before getting pregnant and entering in a polygamous marriage. Suffering in a situation many Congolese women face, she returned to her parents’ house and is carving a life for herself by attending school. In 2015, she obtained her secondary school diploma and manages her family’s plantation of 753 coffee trees. Donatilla attends the GALS sessions and leadership trainings, giving her the confidence to stand up in front of an audience of fifty strangers and spur other women in her community forward.

At the producer organisation level – one could ask whether cooperatives are the appropriate actor to challenge gender norms, but the answer lies in the business sense. Lydia Nabulumbi, Head of Marketing for Gumutindo (Uganda), openly admits that when women can join the cooperative as full members and participate in trainings on pre and post-harvest processing, the quality of the coffee generally increased.

Blessings Msowoya from Mzuzu Farmers’ Cooperative Union (Malawi) joined in to explain how cooperatives are enablers of gender justice, by detailing how gender policies allow for women to become members, participate in elections, or obtain work in the cooperative.

Finally, Pascasie Nyirandege from Twin, who not only supports the producer organisations in developing gender policies and activities, introduced Twin’s report on land rights and land ownership for women in Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, and DR Congo. Looking at both civil and customary law, the document aims to identify the hurdles women face on a daily basis to formally own assets – trees and/or land – often a criteria to join cooperatives but also an essential step towards economic independence. And as Lydia already told us – you want women in your cooperative if you want to increase your quality.


At the market level – Twin interacts with Atlas and Taylors in promoting what we call ’women’s coffee’ internally, but what we find is sold as “coffee produced by women”, because, well, otherwise it could be misconstrued as coffee only women can drink (you know, like those pink pens and razors you find next to the grey ones).

atlas1We learn from both Atlas and Taylors that it took their marketers days to understand the concept and create it into something that we, as customers, will take off the shelf and put into our shopping cart. We also learned that US marketers assume customers will chose in 30 seconds, while UK marketers assume that choice is made in 3. Well, who’s to say? Maybe this is the final proof that the specialty market is more developed in the US.

But what we learned in the end, is that buyers, roasters, and retailers alike prick their ears and listen closely when we talk about the story these women have gone through to get this coffee to them – from the Donatillas, through the Blessings and Lydias, embarking on a journey of empowerment and equality.

At the international certification level – participants discussed the benefits and difficulties in creating a new regulatory body that would certify that coffee produced  by women is indeed 100% traceable to women. At the moment, the cost of introducing a new certification not unlike Fairtrade or Organic feels strained and unnecessary, as it would undoubtedly cost more than the premium women currently receive. While this prevents the product from reaching the masses, at the moment, retailers and importers feel comfortable that the trust they developed with their specialty coffee consumers suffices in promoting these coffees.

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