Women in Coffee: how the “gift” of coffee trees is empowering women in Kenya

Fairtrade Kenya

LONG READ

“Women in Coffee has changed my status from beggar to planner,” says Rhoda Biy, 50, mother to six children, from Kibukwo Farmers Cooperative Society high up in Keyna’s Nandi Hills.

I have travelled more than 6,500 miles to Kenya’s lush, green and mountainous Nandi County to see how Women in Coffee is transforming the position of females in society with Fairtrade, chefs Melissa Hemsley, Tom Hunt and Tess Ward and i editor Siobhan Norton.  

It’s hard to listen to the backstories of Biy and her fellow female coffee farmers who, as part of a Women in Coffee programme, have only recently been given a proportion of their husbands’ coffee bushes so they can earn their own incomes.

The wives reveal how even now their days start around 5am and one confesses they don’t always end at 10pm once in bed, because they have a ‘responsibility to please their husband’.

But at least now they have their own income and don’t also have to beg for money.

“Money for what?” I ask. “For clothes and shoes?”

No – for food for their children and school fees. Even for the most audacious of women, essentials such as sanitary protection remains a taboo subject.

But angry as I am at hearing about the every day injustices they endure, it’s also impossible not to be infected by the positive energy from both the men and the women we meet. They are now working more closely together than ever and are all reaping the benefits of what they sow.

Kenya’s Nandi Hills are home to a pioneering scheme that’s empowering female coffee farmers (Chris Terry)

GROUNDS FOR CHANGE

Although women in Nandi County typically do an estimated 70 per cent of the work in the home and on the farms, until recently it was only the men who received payment once the coffee cherries were processed at the mill. At which point it was not uncommon for them to disappear until the majority of the cash was spent.

“You could hear the quarrels when the men come to collect the money and women had to wait outside. Our cooperative used to employ an armed policeman, which is quite common,” says secretary manager of Kibukwo cooperative, Shadrack Suge.

“Actually, it was the men who used to pay for security cover.” – So their wives couldn’t take any money from them.

This is a common story. With little incentive to add to their unrewarded workload, women gradually stopped tending to the coffee bushes. Production suffered, which affected the whole community including the profits at the mill where the coffee cherries are processed into beans.

“We discussed how to get rid of this embarrassment where the main breadwinner was leaving his wife and children hungry and not appreciating the work the women were doing,” says the chairman of neighbouring Kabng’etuny Farmers Coffee Cooperative Society, Samson Koskei.

They came up with the idea that maybe men could part with some of their coffee bushes in July 2012.

“The world is so out of our control but we can make very simple choices to help make it better. I really believe in voting with your spending power,” says Melissa Hemsley (Chris Terry)

“The first meeting didn’t go well because we were asking the male farmers to transfer their assets to women,” he says. “One said ‘you cannot disinherit me when I’m still alive’.”

The men were also fearful their wives would follow in their footsteps and squander their earnings or run off with their new-found independence.

So, Koskei and a handful of others gave their wives coffee bushes to set an example. This meant their wives could register as members of cooperative societies, open bank accounts and receive a direct income from selling coffee. That same year, they saw men and women line up together to get their earnings for the first time ever.

The minimum number of bushes to be gifted is still set at 50 as men own an average of 300-400 each. But the project has been a phenomenal success and there are now more than 500 smallholder women coffee farmers who own an average of 250 coffee bushes each, according to the latest Fairtrade reports.

Incredibly, more than 70 per cent of the coffee produced is now of premium quality, up from 25 per cent when the project began. The women are also producing almost double the amount of coffee cherries per bush – and this increase in productivity continues to rise.

 

SPILL THE BEANS: COFFEE IN NUMBERS

Around 80% of the worlds coffee is produced in developing countries by 25 million small holders with less than 10 hectares of land

Many coffee farmers live on less than $2 a day

Globally, 5 corporations control around 50% of the roasting and marketing of coffee (Kraft, Nestle, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, Tchibo)

In the UK we drink 55 million cups of coffee a day

 

As well as adding to the Fairtrade pool of coffee farmed by their communities the women are creating their own uniquely-branded “Zawadi” coffee. It is speciality AA grade coffee, considered some of the finest in the world. It has notes of milk chocolate and orange blossom.

Zawadi means gift in Swahili, and the name represents the coffee created from bushes ‘gifted’ to wives by their husbands.

Kenya produces just six per cent of the world’s coffee and Zawadi coffee makes up a tiny proportion of that, but it’s significant because in rural Kenya the culture is only just starting to change to allow women to own coffee bushes. Even now, the land beneath the bushes remains owned by their husbands.

The road to get to this point has been as long and bumpy as those leading to the hilltop villages of these farmers and there is still a long way to go in achieving true independence and equality. But these inspiring women have taken the first and important steps.

EQUAL SHOT

Trained, inspired and now running their own Women in Coffee boards, the leadership tables at the cooperatives’ head offices reveal some women with fewer bushes than men are harvesting more coffee cherries in total. This has led to healthy competition between the sexes – inspiring men to rise to the challenge.

Even more importantly, it’s changing the dynamics within the family.

“Before we men spent our spare income on soda, or we lent it to friends, which meant that our children’s school fees were not covered,” says chairman of Kibukwo cooperative, Haron Biy.

“But we quickly learned that if you give your wife 1000 Kenyan Shilling (75p), she knows how to manage that money properly. We know we have to change and learn from our wives.

“Women are much more productive and go the extra mile.”

Every farmer tells a similar story. When one confessed to his wife they were going to have to sell the family cow, their source of milk, to pay for their daughter’s school fees she was able to cover them and keep the cow.

Another admits: “I fear my children will say it’s only their mother paying their school fees, so I’m motivated to pay.”

FAIR TRADE

Fairtrade has been essential to the success of Women in Coffee. Primarily for its very existence, as the foundation has always pushed for more equality in the cooperatives they work with.

Practically speaking, they continue to teach the women best practice when it comes to farming, providing the tools that enables them to thrive.

Optimism radiates from these women, and I lose count of the times they declare themselves “empowered”.

Yet, there are many more injustices and challenges to overcome, not least because male and female coffee farmers are at the bottom of the supply chain.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (behind crude oil) and it’s reported to be worth $100 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. It’s nowhere near as valuable for the farmers though, who typically receive less than 10 per cent of the retail price of a pack of coffee once all of the middlemen have taken their cut.

We did the maths at the Kibukwo cooperative and worked out that coffee farming brings in around 80p per day. As such, some of the farmers have never tasted the coffee they produce and most can rarely afford to drink it.

On top of this, production is at the mercy of the weather, and farmers – male and female – simply don’t have the means to invest in the infrastructure to protect themselves or their crops against climate change.

Even if you’re sceptical about the effectiveness of certifications like Fairtrade, the Women in Coffee project is a phenomenal example of the far reaching benefits of long-term vision and investment in people.

Zawadi coffee is only available to buy in Kenya for now. But, as consumers the biggest power we have to help women the world over support themselves is to make sure we’re buying coffee that doesn’t exploit farmers but empowers them, by choosing Fairtrade or similar. That’s a gift we can give every single day.

And why stop at coffee?

 

FOUR GREAT FAIR TRADE COFFEE BRANDS

Percol – Fairtrade, carbon neutral and some ranges now come in compostable packaging – making them the first coffee brand to receive the Plastic Free Trust Mark.

Cafédirect – invest 50% of their profits into producers direct – a UK charity run by farmers, for farmers, developing innovative solutions to the challenges they face.

CRU Kafe – the Fairtrade and organic alternative to Nespresso capsules.

Union – An independent “trade, not aid” model. In 2017 Union paid on average over 50% more than the minimum Fairtrade price. They work directly with the farmers to improve the quality of the coffee and the farmers quality of life.

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