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    Women in Coffee


    International Trade Forum - Issue 3-4/2008 

    © iStockPhoto Fair trade coffee farmer

    Around the world, women play a major role in the production of coffee. A handful of international associations are working to ensure their access to equal ownership and employment conditions.

    On the family-owned coffee plots that produce most of Africa's coffee, it is usually women who undertake the majority of maintenance and harvesting work. Here, and in other coffee-producing areas around the world, their contribution is vital. Despite this, however, they tend to have little control over the harvest proceeds, and coffee industry structures seldom, if at all, make provision for women's interests. Without information or training beyond purely field-related issues, women have limited opportunity to contribute to the decision-making processes that affect them.

    Research shows that increased access to resources for women, particularly in the agricultural industry, has great effects on education, health, nutrition and overall welfare, and on poverty reduction. For women - and thus families and communities - to thrive, traditional gender divisions need to stop confining women to subsistence production and start looking at women's potential in the commercial sphere. Rural women won't be offered the opportunities they deserve until governments make targeted reforms. Awareness and education are crucial.

    Associations of women in coffee

    Historically, women's groups and associations are a well-established means for improving rights and access to services, thereby providing social and economic empowerment. Capacity building - through access to information, credit, infrastructure and other business development services - is required to ensure women's involvement in decision-making processes.   

    Using the rich base of knowledge in its Coffee Guide book and the website version at www.thecoffeeguide.org, ITC is currently supporting the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association (EAFCA) with development programmes in 11 countries, including a component on women in the coffee sector. The role of women in coffee has been included as one of the themes at the next annual EAFCA coffee conference in Kigali, Rwanda in February 2009, which ITC is supporting.

    In October 2008, ITC arranged to send two female EAFCA employees to Costa Rica for the first truly international conference for women in coffee. Women in Coffee (WIC), a leading information sharing and training organization for women, which is active primarily in Central America, coordinated the conference.

    WIC is one of a very small number of organizations dedicated to improving the conditions of women in the coffee sector. Another of the few active associations, Café Femenino Foundation, began by assisting poor communities in Peru. It now works in some ten countries in Latin America, with development also under way in Africa. The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has made important developments in the past, but its programme for women in coffee is currently inactive due to lack of funding. CQI promotes leadership training for women by partnering female mentors in the United States with fellows in both Central and South America.

    Of the national associations of women in the coffee sector, the largest and most prominent are in Central America: the Alianza de Mujeres en Café de Costa Rica (Costa Rican alliance of women in coffee); Mujeres en Café de Guatemala (Women in coffee in Guatemala); and Flores del café - Movimiento de Mujeres (Coffee flowers - women's movement) in Nicaragua. A few other countries have small national or in-country regional groups of women, including Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Kenya and India. 

    The collaboration with EAFCA has allowed ITC to expand its network of women working in the coffee sector. In 2008, it used these contacts to survey women in 15 coffee-producing countries around the world. As there was very little information available previously, the findings are particularly valuable.

     © iStockPhoto  Indonesian coffee fresh from the plant
    © EAFCA  Women in Coffee
    conference participants, Costa Rica
    © EAFCA  Conference participants,
    Costa Rica

    Women's role in coffee production

    Women's role in the workforce varies significantly from one country to another, and even within countries. In Viet Nam, for example, women make up about 50% of the in-country traders, which is significantly more than in other countries. In Brazil, where a third of the world's coffee is produced, there is a very low percentage of women in fieldwork and harvest, due to the high level of mechanized farming. Mexico provides an example of significant variation of the role of women in coffee from one region to another. Table 1 shows the diversity of women's roles across the 15 countries that participated in the ITC survey.

    Women's ownership in the coffee industry

    Women's ownership in coffee production is modest at all levels. Ownership is difficult to describe for several reasons, such as the sometimes-unclear distinction between ownership and user-rights, and co-ownership for married couples. Table 2 shows that, although there are significant variations, on average women own around 15% of land, traded produce and companies related to coffee.   

    ITC is currently developing plans for further cooperation with women in coffee-producing countries. The programmes will be primarily based on the extensive resources in The Coffee Guide.

    Table 1
    Women's participation as a percentage
    of total workforce
      Table 2
    Women's ownership as a percentage
    of total (including co-ownership)
    Function in
    the value















    (certification,laboratories etc.)



    Property  Variations
    level of
    Land used for
    coffee production
    (including user rights)



    (when harvested)



    (when traded



    in the coffee
    sector (e.g., exporters,
    laboratories, certifiers,transportation)




    The Coffee Guide
    The Coffee Guide website, is based on one of ITC's most frequently requested publications over time. The website has over 500 continuously updated text boxes on statistics, markets, certifications, contracts, logistics, financing, hedging, quality control, etc. It also has a question and answer service, which has posted more than 200 detailed answers to questions, primarily from coffee-producing countries. The entire website is available in English, French and Spanish.

    Other valuable references for women in coffee include:

    Eastern African Fine Coffees Association

    The International Women's Coffee Alliance 

    Café Femenino Foundation (see also http://www.coffeecan.org/)

    The Coffee Quality Institute