By Phyllis Johnson, President of BD Imports, and NCA Board Member
Think back to the last coffee you drank. Was it a man or a woman who picked those cherries, who carried them to the drying station, and who painstakingly sorted them? And if it was a woman, did she reap an income from it?
For women in rural coffee communities in certain countries, there’s a high chance that they serve as the primary labor force yet own neither the land nor the fruit. As coffee consumers and importers, this poses some difficult questions for us. What does it mean to have a gender-inclusive coffee supply chain? And how do you construct a program for improvement when policies and cultural norms are not on your side?
These aren’t easy questions, but they do have answers. I’m involved in a program driving gender equality in coffee in Burundi, and I’m here to share the eight key steps that we’re taking.
IWCA Burundi: A Program for Change
The International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), in collaboration with the UN and the International Trade Centre (ITC), has set out to build networks of women in coffee throughout East Africa. The challenges women face include a lack of land ownership, financial resources, and education, among many others. These are similar in many places, yet each place requires unique solutions based on the environment and social norms.
Through a coalition of supply chain partners that span the globe, we are starting to realise changes. Women at the core of the supply chain are starting to receive a return on their investment, gender norms are shifting, and women are no longer free labor in coffee production.
And in 2010, the IWCA opened a chapter in Burundi. It’s seen great success to date: during the 2015 coffee season, over 1,300 women and 700 men worked towards our shared goal of quality production, transparency, and gender equity.
This marks a significant change:
“In my country, women in coffee do not have land. The fact is, in Burundi, the owner of the land is the man. The fruit of the agriculture belongs to the man. When you get married, you go to another family. You live on the land, but it belongs to your husband. You can work on it, but you can’t decide what to do with it. For example, if you have coffee, you grow and pick the coffee. But the sale of the coffee and the money, the man needs to manage. Women, they need to wait. Wait and see what is left over for them, and for the children.”
– Isabelle Sinamenye, President Association des femmes du café Burundi: Johnstone-Louis, M., Deighton, J. September 2013, International Women’s Alliance, Harvard Business School case study No N9-514-038
So what are the IWCA Burundi’s eight integral steps?
1. Engage Both Men & Women
In Burundi, we decided that the most effective option would be to pursue a program of men and women working together. Creating a women’s exclusive organization would cause friction, not to mention that women and men wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn from each other. As of such, men were asked to be involved in the program from the start. Those who became a part of it understood that the primary mission was allowing growth opportunities for women.
2. Establish Goals & Develop a Policy
We knew that some pretty big changes were needed. Women who had picked coffee cherries had to be allowed to sell to the washing station in their own names – unlike in the past, when landless women would have to enter the names of their husbands, who would receive the payment.
3. Focus on Quality Coffee Production
One major decision made by the Burundi chapter was to focus on quality. Isabelle Sinamenye, a trained cupper and licensed Q grader, is responsible for maintaining quality standards for the national coffee board in Burundi. With IWCA Burundi, she teaches the need for quality picking and processing. The goal is for the nation’s coffees to compete in quality competitions at the highest of levels, thereby building the country’s credibility in coffee circles.
4. Negotiate Better Deals over the Whole Supply Chain
One of our greatest returns came from negotiating with local washing station owners. Typically, the washing station owner purchases the coffee cherries from farmers and the relationship ends at this point. Yet the chapter negotiated a profit-sharing plan with the washing station owner, meaning that they are paid after contracts are secured with an international buyer found by the IWCA.
The result is that each farmer and picker in the program receives a portion of the selling price based on the volume of cherries sold. Plus, the washing station owner doesn’t have the added cost of finding a buyer.
5. Create a Profit-Sharing/Incentive Program for Farmers & Pickers
IWCA created a profit-sharing scheme in the hope of increased production and participation – and it worked exactly as they had imagined. Each year, they make an event out of giving everyone their annual share of the profit. Everyone comes out to celebrate and learn about the program. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of participants in the program grew from 150 to 2,200. And production went from 100 60 kg bags to 1,200.
6. Engage International Buyers
Initially, many of the program’s women weren’t comfortable sitting at negotiation tables with buyers or telling their own stories – or using technology as a sales tool. Similarly, they didn’t fully understand the competition they faced in the global market. That’s where my organisation came in. I run BD Imports with my husband, a coffee importer. We engage with IWCA Burundi not only as a buyer, but also as a mentoring partner, helping the women to sell their own coffee.
Yet this wasn’t enough on its own; we needed to form a coalition of buyers able to see beyond competition. We reached out to customers such as micro roaster Coffee By Design (Portland, Maine); Olam Coffee (Healdsburg, California), Zephyr Coffee, an affiliate of Louis Dreyfus (New Orleans); and Balzac Brothers (Charleston, South Carolina). It was refreshing to work with teams that were so enthusiastic, both about the quality of the coffee and the gender equity program.
7. Support from Non-Profit Partners
Non-profit organisations are at the forefront of women’s empowerment. The International Trade Centre and The International Women’s Coffee Alliance helped, both through leadership training and connecting us to markets. Additionally, through their international work, they bring a global understanding of the issues.
8. Tell the Story
There’s a great market for specialty coffee – and an even better one for specialty coffee with quality stories. Yet this posed another challenge for women in coffee: how do you tell stories when culturally it’s unacceptable to talk about yourself or your work? So BD Imports, along with the IWCA team, constructed marketing materials to help women share their experiences.
Programs must measure outcomes, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that women at the core of coffee production are doing great things with the new opportunities afforded to them by IWCA Burundi.
To name but a few, farmers are paying debts, investing in future crops, winning quality competitions, and buying small household items to benefit the family, while IWCA Burundi members are recognized by local and international organizations, as well as increasing their income through the bonus program.
In the future, IWCA Burundi hopes to provide further training to rural farmers, open a coffee shop in the capital, and simply empower farmers to achieve better lives with greater opportunities – in this generation and the next.
Edited by T. Newton, Perfect Daily Grind
Photo credits: Perfect Daily Grind, IWCA