Breaking New Ground in Gender Research in Coffee

The following is a guest post submitted to The First Pull. See our guest post guidelines


Women coffee farmers in Rwanda. Source: IWCA

By Ruth Ann Church and Josiane Cotrim Macieira, The International Women’s Coffee Alliance

In coffee, the women who perform much of the labor – up to 70%, according to the ITC’s Coffee Exporters’ Guide – to grow, harvest, process, and export coffee are all too often invisible.

Few organizations are focused on collecting or publishing data specifically on the women involved in the supply chain for commodities like coffee; and there has been little to no funding allocated to this task. Even in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producing country, the lack of data makes one believe that women do not exist.

Experts agree that women are the greatest untapped resource available to avert challenges to the global coffee industry. But the lack of data on women makes it impossible to understand their impact  in the value chain. This leads to under-performance in the coffee industry, much like how poor recognition of contributions in any industry can cause lagging productivity.

Why the IWCA Research Alliance?

The International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) focuses on organizing, connecting and empowering women in coffee so that they are recognized for their contributions, to ultimately advance the sustainability of all aspects of the coffee industry, including communities. As of this writing, IWCA is a global network of 21 self-formed and self-governing chapters.

The IWCA Research Alliance, a committee supporting the global organization, is a network of researchers based in the countries in which the IWCA has chapters. The goal of the committee is to pursue research needed to understand issues of gender in coffee. The first project chosen was to address the lack of data on the number of female producers in each producing country.

Ruth Church

Ruth Ann Church

The impetus for this research committee and research project came from two sources. First, the committee chair, Ruth Ann Church, who joined the IWCA Board of Directors in 2014 to develop their impact assessment framework. Church was surprised to find that none of the usual “go-to” sources for coffee industry insights had data on the number of women in coffee. Collecting data on the number of women working in coffee is simply not within the current scope of leading coffee organizations. All conduct research, however their focus areas are tightly tied to their primary audience. For example, NCA’s research efforts are intended to support its ability to be the voice at the US government level and help US companies understand consumer behavior. The SCA focuses on roaster trends in specialty coffee.

Church decided to use her coffee research background and familiarity with university and government institutions to form a committee of research professionals to address the lack of data . She envisioned that individual researchers in each country could support and encourage each other via regular communications.

The second inspiration came from Brazil – at 55.0 million 60 KG bags, they produce 54% more than the next largest producer which is Vietnam with 25.5 million 60 KG bags (source). Not surprisingly, IWCA’s chapter in Brazil is the largest in the IWCA network. At the time IWCA’s Research Alliance was coming together, the false statements about no women in coffee was spreading due to the misinformation being shared in publications and in conversations. The IWCA Brazil chapter (Aliança Internacional das Mulheres do Café) led by Josiane Cotrim (IWCA Brazil), Cristina Arzabe (Embrapa Café), Brígida Salgado (IWCA/Brasil – Presidente) and Raquel Santos Soares Menezes (UFV), formed a partnership with Embrapa* to set the record straight.

*Embrapa is the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, under the aegis of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply.


Coffee harvest in Brazil. Source: IWCA

Brazil Project: IWCA’s Network in Action

The IWCA Brazil and Embrapa Café Partnership is the backbone of the Brazil project. The effort is also supported by other institutions belonging to the Consórcio Pesquisa Café/Brazilian Coffee Research Consortium and in collaboration with the Solidaridad Latin America. Key faculty at Brazilian universities are also engaged to help with the design and implementation.

The partnership’s goal is to address the information gap on women in coffee. What is exciting about the work in Brazil is the fact that, like many other coffee growing regions, they have no history, tradition, or mandate to quantify the number of women in coffee –  and yet that has not stopped the nearly 20 professionals volunteering their time to support the project. The fact that they continued to meet, plan and implement their research plan with no funding for the first year, is a tribute to the passion and determination that can happen when people are connected, empowered and supported. This collective group is dedicated to ensuring the women involved in Brazil’s coffee production are seen, counted, and valued. It is also a tribute to the importance of data and research and this group of talented individuals understands how powerful it will be to have data, both quantitative and qualitative, on the number and specific roles of women in coffee in Brazil.

The Brazil project is designed to contribute to four major areas, and will be done in two phases:

  1. Public Policy (targeted at gender inclusion and equality)
  2. Productivity Improvement and Poverty Reduction
  3. Markets, Policies and Rural Development
  4. Networks and Partners

Phase I

Since May 2016 the data has been collected using online questionnaires and research presence at coffee events all over Brazil. Also, researchers have visited farms during the harvest. The program has also collected historical videos and photos.

To date. there are nearly 1,000 questionnaires completed. These questionnaires are compiled at the University of Viçosa. The results will be made available through a bilingual e-book in EPUB 3 format, with support from the Embrapa Informação Tecnológica (SCT). The interactive e-book will be available on the IWCA Brazil and partner websites.

Phase II

This second phase will also expand the first phase doubling the number of questionnaires. It will be funded with support from Solidaridad, the IWCA Global Organization, and the Social Mobility, Rural Producer and Cooperatives Secretary from the Agriculture Ministry. This support will go towards organizing workshops with women from cooperatives in the context of the International Coffee Week, filming a documentary, and creating a digital and printed publication.

And It’s Not Just Brazil: Initial Results for Six Coffee Origins

For the past two years, hard-working teams have been collecting data to develop credible, government-sourced estimates of the number of women coffee producers in six countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Table 1: Estimates from the IWCA Research Alliance of female coffee producers by country

Country Estimated Number of Female Producers Females as % of Total Producers Year of Estimate
Costa Rica 15,450 34% 2013
El Salvador 6,700 33% 2013
Guatemala 4,000 – 7,000 19 – 22% 2016/17
Honduras 19,764 pending 2013
Burundi 117,990 20% 2006/07
Rwanda 113,846 32% 2015

Sources: 2013 estimates from Instituto del Cafe de Costa Rica (ICAFE) in Costa Rica; 2013 estimates from the Consejo in El Salvador; 2016/2017 estimates from Anacafe (Guatemala); 2013 report from the Instituto Hondurevo del Café (ICAFE) Registro Nacional de Productores; Recensement General des Cafeiers Edition 2006-2007, from Institute de Statistiques Et D’Etudes Economiques du Burundi, (ISTEEBU); 2015 Coffee Census published by Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), released May 2016.

There is much more work to be done. iwca-rwandaPicking1

Further funding is especially needed for the other countries in the IWCA network (see the map here). The Research Alliance recognizes that the situation in each country is different and a one size-fits-all approach will not work. We believe in using local in-country volunteers to find and compile the data on the number of women in coffee. One cannot find this data by sitting in an office in the capital city. What we have found is that funding for travel is the greatest obstacle for these researchers, as they are required to travel some distance by car/bus or in Brazil’s case, by plane, and often have overnight stays. The investigator has to get to where the data might be, often multiple times.

We believe that supporting research on women in coffee as a tangible way to not only create recognition of women’s roles in coffee, but to develop an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the industry to ensure that investments to advance the industry are in fact, effective. With appreciation and understanding of women’s roles, the industry will be able to reach new levels of productivity, resiliency, and performance.

If you are interested in learning more or supporting IWCA and the IWCA Research Alliance, please visit our website.

The IWCA Convention will be be held August 3-5, Puebla, Mexico. 


About the Authors

Ruth Ann Church is President and Chief Relationship Officer at Artisan Coffee Imports, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan ( In addition to importing specialty green coffee, Artisan offers a Sustainable Coffee Supply Chain consulting service to roasters who want to analyze opportunities for more efficiency and higher quality at origin. Ruth Ann is a Q Grader and SCAA certified Instructional Development Professional.  She volunteers as a board member of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) Research & Impact Assessment committee.

Josiane Cotrim Macieira is a Brazilian journalist who grew up in the coffee producing region of Minas Gerais. She is a tireless advocate for a change in the perception of coffee production in Brazil. Contrary to what is typically written and believed about the Brazilian coffee industry being highly mechanized, Josiane has brought to light the many faces in coffee that make up the backbone of the world’s largest coffee producer. She has represented the IWCA and Brazil at the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and has served on the board of IWCA.


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