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Wake up! and smell the gender-equal coffee Wake up and smell the gender-equal coffee
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Wake up! and smell the gender-equal coffee

Gender equality is critical in global food security. On International Women’s Day, Rainforest Alliance Gender Lead speaks about the work of coffee farmers, whose voices often go unheard and work unnoticed.
Photo Nathan Dumlao

When Florence Njiraini’s husband gifted her 1,500 coffee plants on the slopes of Mt. Kenya years ago, she knew almost nothing about farming. In some countries, traditionally, cash crops are considered men’s crops, whereas the food crops are for the women.

Determined to make her plot a success, she set about learning as much as she could, and soon she was employing sustainable growing practices. Njiraini is  now a successful coffee farmer and a role model in her community, particularly to other women. She is the lead farmer for the Mutira Farmers’ Cooperative, a group of more than 5,500 Kenyan smallholders that has been audited to meet standards that require environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

Gender equality in farming

Nijraini’s story shows that women can have leading roles in cash crop work, but there’s still a long way to go for them to achieve gender equality and equal access to resources in farms globally.

In Latin America, one in five farmworkers is a woman, and in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, half of all agricultural laborers are women. Yet, women  often have less, or no, access to resources, such as credit, training, and information than their male counterparts, often resulting in lower crop yields.

If the playing field were made level, women could increase their farm yields by 20-30%, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. And if women were paid fairly, businesses in all sectors would also see benefits in terms of staff retention, productivity and the general wellbeing of their workforce.

Experts believe gender equality will be critical to global food security in the coming decades, especially as the world’s farmers struggle to produce food for a rapidly growing population on a shrinking area of arable land.

Women invest in the future

Numerous studies have shown that when women control household income, they are more likely than men to spend money on their families (food, clothing, education and health-related items)—with benefits for the entire community. Research shows a 20 percent increase in childhood survival rates when women manage their household budget.

Meanwhile, pressure is  mounting on global business  corporations from all the major stakeholders fighting for gender equality, including NGOs and civil society, to comply with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). This is particularly true for forced labour issues, which are strongly linked to gender and sexual harassment, as evidenced by the growth of social movements such as #MeToo. The welcome news is that companies are starting to take these issues more seriously.

Women in the coffee sector

According to the International Coffee Organization, around 1.4 billion cups of coffee are poured worldwide on a daily basis. Coffee is considered one of the most popular drinks in the world. It even has its own International day, on the 1st of October. Last year,  a documentary highlighted the theme of the day: “women in coffee” .

In a growing sector where women play a fundamental role yet are not rewarded fairly, the International Women in Coffee Alliance, was funded in 2003 by women from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the US. They empower “women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives; and encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry”

Women’s organisations, particularly in the farming and agricultural sectors are getting stronger; and specifically, products made by women are becoming more and more sought after.

There is a broad consensus among development and supply chain experts that without women’s empowerment, the world will not meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The advancement of women is key to improving sustainable livelihoods in the agricultural sector. Multiple studies have shown that when women gain more economic strength, their families and communities benefit as well.

Men’s participation is key

These benefits over time cascade across the whole sector. Men’s participation in women’s empowerment initiatives is an integral part of the process to achieve gender equality. Disregarding their role can lead to undesired outcomes, such as low participation rates by women and lack of sustainability over time, or even increased gender-based violence.

Women of Alimentos Nutri-Naturales S.A. (ANSA) sort ramon nuts and spread them out for drying at their processing center and bakery for ramon nuts in Ixlu, Guatemala. Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

And all sectors, not just agriculture, have something to gain from enhanced gender equality and social equity. Gender equality can provide businesses with the opportunity to hire from a wider pool of talent, gain greater insights into consumers’ needs, and improve the security and quality of supply.

Companies that haven’t done so already should make 2019 the year to take action on gender equality. As the #Balanceforbetter campaign highlights, “everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere. From grassroots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence.”

As millions of women and men march today to demand gender equality, they will be happy to know that a movement is happening in parallel that is striving to make even the coffee they drink in the morning gender equal.  

Joky Francois

Joky currently is Global Gender lead based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Joky studied social forestry in the Netherlands and after that lived and worked for many years in Bolivia, Ecuador and Pakistan where she worked in different contexts on projects from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to NGOs. Her work on gender and women empowerment has always been in the context of the participative management of natural resources, sustainable production systems and/or food security. She is particularly interested in participatory learning processes and influencing processes of change believing that positive and inspiring people and examples are an important basis for the processes of change.
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    Words In The Bucket is a team of global citizens with the common goal of raising awareness and information about issues related to human rights protection, social inclusion, development and environment.

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