The Changing Role of Women in Coffee Production

Speciality coffee roaster Union recognises the changing role of women in coffee.

Iliana Martinez, general manager of the Esquipulas Coffee Co-Operative in Guatemala, comments, “Latin America is considered the cradle of machismo. When I first started working in the industry, the majority of managers in Guatemala were men. It was rare to see women working in the field, receive payment or recognition for their work.”

Today, women in the cooperative are recognised and receive payment. Under Martinez’s leadership, the co-operative has grown and today it exports coffee from more than 200 members, of which 25% are female, to the UK, Japan and Italy.

And Martinez is not the only one. Around the world, there is a rising trend for women driving coffee production forward.

Speciality coffee roaster Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, has noticed this trend and is working to help facilitate this change. Ensuring women’s access to equal ownership and employment conditions, the London, UK-based company is working hard to empower women at all levels of the supply chain, all the way from seed to cup.

Pascale Schuit, Union’s coffee sourcing and sustainable relationship manager, says, “International Women’s Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the many women who make Union Hand-Roasted Coffee a reality, and on the true impact Union has had at origin.”

Union links sustainable best practice with the quality of the coffee through its Union Direct Trade model. The cooperatives it works with in Rwanda, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Ethiopia all have women in senior leadership positions, from managers to female cuppers (coffee tasters). Working closely with suppliers, Union visits origin countries several times a year to build strong, open relationships and ensure its strict standards are being met.

In Rwanda, Union supports the Maraba and COCAGI cooperatives, where more than 30% of members are women. Accessing formal training can be hard, however, as a result of this support, income for coffee farmers has tripled. To celebrate International Women’s Day (8 March), Union has developed a new microlot coffee, Cocagi Kivu, produced exclusively by 42 women in the region. By providing equal opportunities, Union has enabled women in the region to use the money to start a small business, send their children to school and pay their children’s health insurance.

In Guatemala, one of Union’s initiatives, the Guatemala bee project, encourages single mothers to start their own microbusinesses and improve self-sufficiency through introducing bee farming on the coffee farms (bees play a significant role in coffee pollination). This not only empowers women, but it also allows for additional income, improved autonomy and financial stability.

In the UK, gender equity is also firmly embedded across all levels of the business. Nearly 40% of Union’s employees are women.

Martinez concludes, “It is important to generate programmes that recognise the work of women in coffee and we have prepared a gender strategy to do just that. But there is still a long way to go and changing traditional perspectives is definitely the first step.”

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