Pact’s Impact: Women in the Supply Chain

Posted by Lydia on 24 July 2018

While our passion is fresh coffee, it’s the people behind the product that make Pact what it is. By committing to Direct Trade, we’re constantly building and growing relationships with farmers around the world. As we go straight to source, we can pay much higher prices for coffee beans. And since farmers are paid higher prices, they can work harder to improve the quality of their crop - along with the help and expertise of our Head of Coffee, Will. And this means we can pay even higher prices! It’s a win-win situation, but it also means that, by being a Pact customer, you are making a tangible difference in the lives of coffee farmers and in their communities.

This is a man’s world

We’re trying to fix injustices in the supply chain, but it’s important to note that being underpaid and untrained is more of a problem for some farmers than others. You think ‘farmer’ and you might have a particular image in your mind: dungarees, wellies, a straw bobbing from their mouth at a rakish angle and, crucially, male. All of those elements are wrong in their own way, but some would say that the least problematic part of that stereotype is that farmers are assumed to be men.

They’d probably be surprised, then, to learn that women undertake 70% of coffee fieldwork despite owning just 15% of the land, processing facilities and traded product. And while female farmers are undeniably a huge part of the agricultural labour force in general, they only receive 5% of the relevant training. Earning less, learning less and just not perceived to be the essential part of the industry that they really are, women in coffee deserve way more than they’re getting.

So, why is this the case? There’s a lot at play. One major thing it comes down to is good old-fashioned gender inequality. Having fewer rights and opportunities as default is never a good place to start, and when you factor in the expectation of also covering all household responsibilities (with women found to work a 15-hour day to a man’s eight hours, including work and home tasks) then things start to become fairly self-explanatory. That’s all amplified by the fact that women are primarily doing labour, not business, when it comes to working in coffee. 

Doing our bit

It’s clear that a lot needs to change. We might not be able to do that all by ourselves but, just as you recycling your empty cans properly is at least one step towards change, helping even a few women to succeed in the coffee world can have a big impact. Pact is committed to this, on each level of the supply chain.

On the farm 

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We’ve worked with a lot of impressive female farmers but there’s one that stands out - Victoria Concepcion Aguirra. With just 70 square metres of farmland, Victoria and her seven children were selling commodity coffee for just $1.65/lb when Will, our Head of Coffee, first went over to Honduras. Knowing he was coming over, she worked hard to produce a crop of speciality coffee for him to sample. It was a good move. He could see bigger potential for these beans, so helped Victoria work out how to pick the ripest cherries and refine her processing method.

She was then able to get paid twice as much for her crop, meaning she could expand her farm threefold to around 210 square meters. Not only does this mean she’s financially empowered, and more able to provide for her large family, but she’s now leading a community coffee group - becoming a source of inspiration for other women in her community. And that ripple effect is really important. 

(Of course, we couldn’t talk about women farmers without mentioning the reason our Head of Coffee got a taste for coffee in the first place! When Will was fresh out of university, working in a coffee-packing factory, he tried a coffee from Carmen Silva’s farm. In his words, it changed his life - making him realise how great coffee can really be. And the rest is history!)

In the mill

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Supporting women in farming is important, but attitudes towards women need to shift at every stage. Working down the supply chain, we come to the mill/exporter level. In particular, this story takes place at the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC). When Pact was first taking its business to Colombia, Will worked closely with a male official at the FNC... and closer still with his assistant, Maria Olano.

It was Maria that handled logistics, allowing Pact to do the extensive work it has in the region. In fact, Maria’s expertise was so vital to Will that, when her boss was replaced with another man (and her with another assistant), Pact fought hard to keep the connection they had built. Though the FNC resisted, this was not something Will was willing to compromise on. Now absolutely all of our business in Colombia closely involves Maria, and our backing has raised her status in the FNC.

At the roastery

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Actions speak louder than words, and it’s important to apply this principle to all areas of your business. When Pact first opened its own roastery, the role of roaster was up for grabs. Working for a speciality coffee start-up is quite a draw but, despite being overwhelmed with offers, Pact decided to stay in-house. Aissa had previously worked in the Grindhouse, grinding and packing our coffee to go out to customers, and had proved to be a fully-committed and thoroughly passionate member of the team. It seemed a natural choice, then, to offer to train her from scratch to become a professional speciality coffee roaster.

This was a conscious choice largely due to Aissa’s obvious merits, but it also allowed Pact to be part of the movement attempting to redress the underrepresentation of women in coffee. There’s a clear gender gap in roasting in particular, and we’re proud to have worked with Aissa to help challenge that. While she has since moved on from her role as Pact’s roaster, she has stayed in coffee - moving first to Square Mile Coffee and then to her current role at Caraleva Coffee, a major green coffee exporter/importer. Now she stands as a shining example of a woman in the far end of the supply chain and we couldn’t be more proud.

Who (else) cares?

Gender inequity in coffee. It’s big problem to solve, but we’re not on our own. Organisations like the International Women's Coffee Alliance work tirelessly to address the gender imbalance, by doing anything from challenging policies that prevent women registering coffee in their own names to creating opportunities for female farmers to learn key new skills. Java Mountain Coffee, too, are committed to empowering rural women workers by paying for them to join and train in all-female coffee co-operatives. And then there’s the International Finance Corporation, who led an initiative to train and support women farmers in Indonesia and Vietnam. Thankfully, there’s a lot of people who are recognising that women are particularly at risk of exploitation in the world of coffee. And the more people are aware, the less “invisible” women coffee farmers will be.

That’s exactly the purpose of the Coffee Quality Institute’s Partnership for Gender Equity. In a large scale piece of research, that aimed to shed light on the impact of gender equality on coffee and suggest responses to it, they examined the specific obstacles and issues women face in the coffee supply chain. They uncovered a whole heap of contributing factors: from intense time poverty caused by being responsible for a “disproportionate burden of roles”, while having little control over the sale and marketing of coffee, to being under-represented in leadership of groups and a lack of action being taken to combat this. It’s a wide range of issues to face.

The study also provided a series of recommendations for change, from making training programmes more gender sensitive to sourcing coffee solely from women farmers or gender equity-focused producers. And their next steps involve piloting projects based on their suggestions. We believe this is how the problems in the supply chain will be solved - through tangible actions.

Why should anyone care?

Aside from promoting gender equality for the sake of gender equality (which we think is more than enough incentive!), empowering women farmers has huge consequences for the future of agriculture itself. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, has said this:

Gender equality is not just a lofty ideal, it is also crucial for agricultural development and food security. We must promote gender equality and empower women in agriculture to win, sustainably, the fight against hunger and extreme poverty.

The FAO estimates that allowing women the same opportunities as men would raise production on female-led farms by 20-30%, not only raising overall yield but, more relevantly to coffee, meaning that women have more financial power - a “proven strategy for improving health, nutrition and education outcomes for children”. And that is just another way that coffee can be a force for good.

Pact’s Mission

From directly supporting women in the supply chain to consciously choosing to work with female farmers like Epiphanie Mukashyaka, we want to do what we can to make a real difference in the lives of women in coffee. But it’s not about charity - it’s about quality. By pushing all our farmers to produce the best beans, follow the best practices and process their cherries in the best way, we can help to bring exceptional coffee back with us and leave behind farms that are forward-thinking and thriving. And by making sure we consider the specific obstacles and challenges that female farmers face, we can try and change what it means to be a woman in the coffee supply chain.

Topics: Direct trade

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