Building a balanced industry with the Gender Equity Index

Gender Equity Index

GCR discovers how the Gender Equity Index is set to increase awareness and action among industry actors about the importance of gender equity as a key driver for sustainable development.

A profound ignorance of gender in coffee production still exists, according to Kimberly Easson, Founder and CEO of independent non-profit organisation The Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE).

With no common understanding of gender equity, considered a complicated, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted issue impacted by region, culture, religion, poverty, and personal bias, Easson says the time has come for gender equity globally in the coffee sector.

“In reality, there is no gender equity anywhere on the globe, but there is an opportunity for vast change in every origin. In some countries of the world, women are seen only as workers and their contributions aren’t recognised at all, or in extreme circumstances, gender-based violence is just a way of life. And it’s not only about women who have generally been more oppressed of the genders, men also suffer the impact of gender inequality,” Easson says.

Commonly, Easson says coffee businesses are so focused on the daily operations, that when it comes to the realm of sustainability programming, gender has not really been presented in a way that captures the understanding of the industry, with the ability to react and do something meaningful. However, the industry is in a process of defining its scope of responsibility and the touch points where it can have impact.

Outside supporting organisations such as the International Women Coffee Alliance, PGE’s Greg Meenahan says the default strategy roasters use to support women at origin is to purchase women’s grown coffee or admit gender reluctantly under the ‘house of sustainability’. Some companies support on-the-ground projects and try to ensure that the leadership of organisations with whom they do business embraces women, but as Easson and Meenahan have found, companies don’t just want to just support a gender program, they want to integrate gender into all facets of their sustainability investments.

What’s needed, he says, is a gender due diligence tool to evaluate sustainability portfolios and make sure investments are being made gender equitably.

For the past five years, PGE, which started under the umbrella of the Coffee Quality Institute, has been looking for a scalable strategy that would enlist extension and other advisory service providers to adopt gender “best fit” practices in the design and implementation of their programs. The outcome, made possible with the support of coffee and cocoa partners who donated US$122,000 in February 2021, is the Gender Equity Index (GEI).

With the coffee industry spending more than US$500 million on sustainability efforts each year, according to PGE, the GEI seeks to leverage this investment in support of the women who provide between 40 to 80 per cent of pre- and post-harvest labour, including activities that are critical to product quality and yield, as well as the profitability of the family farm.

The GEI will become a tool to provide a shared language about gender equitable capacity building at origin so that producers, roasters, and green suppliers can identified gaps, clarify goals, and prioritise action.
The first step, Meenahan says, is going to origin, surveying the women, and asking what their needs are and what it is that they want.

“You can’t just go to a farm, find the man, and ask him what the wife needs or what the wife does,” Meenahan says. “You also have to understand what her limitations are and the impediment on her time. If you’re going to pull women out of their household tasks and busy schedules, you have to make sure the training is going to add value.”

And that’s the aim, Meenahan says, to design a training program for women farmers that is accessible, beneficial, and productive, in which overcomes the gender barriers related to technology and skill transfer at origin regarding good agricultural practices, renovation and rehabilitation, post-harvest processing, financial literacy training, quality assurance, Q-grading, and other efforts designed to increase the profitability and resilience of producers.

When industry players across the supply chain were presented with the concept of the GEI and the goal to make training gender equitable, Meenahan says it was the solution many roasters had been looking for.

“People want to do something and are asking, ‘what can we do?’ That’s where the GEI comes in. It’s easy to understand and get involved with, and that’s why we think it’ll be successful,” he says.

For so long, Easson adds the topic of gender equity has been so complex, that the industry hasn’t known how to talk about it, let alone address the issue.

“Twenty years ago, there was no language to talk about specialty coffee quality or how to define a flavour profile, and it’s similar when talking about gender equity. You can find significant research and reports on gender in agriculture going back a decade or more, but all those things have failed to gain significant traction since they’re not tailored to the industry. And because there isn’t a shared language, there’s not an understanding when we talk about empowerment, equality, or inequality,” she says.

“Roasters have a significant degree of leverage to engage their supplier in supply chain conversations related to gender equity. If we can complement this conversation using a shared language and with tools that are really well positioned and targeted to fill the gap that has existed for so long, then it’s a great connection that can really move the needle.”

To help devise the GEI, a gender expert panel made up of leading gender researchers and practitioners ensures a current understanding of good practice and research on gender from diverse perspectives. An expert advisory group maintain appropriate GEI framework and provides feedback for continuous improvement. One such member and financial contributor is independent sustainability standard 4C, who sees the GEI as a tool to complement its own verifiable criteria on gender equality in coffee production, the 4C Gender Equality Add-on.

“Advisory and extension services need tools that are aligned to be able to reach women more effectively. We believe this initiative will allow the coffee industry to have a common language, goals, and objective to address gender inequalities,” says 4C Senior Sustainability Consultant Katia Masias-Bröcker.

“4C is passionate about improving smallholder livelihoods and promoting gender equality, which is an important ingredient of a long-term prosperity recipe for the coffee business.”

Masias-Bröcker says the information GEI presents on women in coffee supply chains only confirmed 4C’s own findings, but what was surprising, is the low level of awareness and action on this topic among advisory and service providers.

“One of the main reasons [gender inequity remains in the supply chain] is the lack of general awareness of women’s rights,” Masias-Bröcker says. “This leads to gender stereotypes and discrimination in health, education, at home, and in the workplace. Social and cultural norms can also be key barriers and perpetuate inequalities. Gender norms assign certain roles and responsibilities to women which in many cases lead to power imbalances and restrict women from enjoying greater rights and opportunities.”

In coffee production, Masias-Bröcker says women are involved in planting, picking, processing, and sorting berries while men typically control activities like transport and selling. Despite this, women tend to have little say in farm decision-making processes and lack access to essential resources, such as land, finance, and education. This has implications not only for the income, health, food security, and education of coffee-growing families, but for coffee yield and quality.

Masias-Bröcker’s hope is for an industry with no constraints for either women or men to reach their full potential and access the economic, social, and ecological benefits from coffee production.

“We hope for the coffee industry to provide women and men with the same opportunities, rights, and obligations. 4C strongly believes that gender equality and women empowerment is a key driver for sustainable development and economic growth,” she says.

Pamela Schreier, Global Sustainability Senior Manager at Ecom Agrotrade, is also on the GEI industry advisory committee. She says it’s been interesting to learn about the positions of other members, largely roasters, and discover that Ecom isn’t the only one “stuck in the gap” between wanting to identify weaknesses in its practices and improving gender equity at origin.

“Ecom has done a lot of different projects at origin but we’re very decentralised. Every team has their own structure and priorities. It’s hard to measure our performance of one specific initiative, but the GEI is something we could apply to everyone. It would give us a common language to use throughout the organisation, and become a tool to compare our projects, see where we’re at, and identify what’s working and what’s not,” Schreier says.

Once the GEI is live, Ecom will implement it across about 12 cocoa origins and 10 coffee origins, and work with PGE to set up a roadmap and action plan.

“What we hope is that the Index can become part of our internal program that’s applied to our field teams as a day-to-day practice. Once we are aware of what the real issues are and their root causes, then hopefully we can make a change,” Schreier says.

For the largely origin-based company, Schreier says most of its field staff are male, as are many of its agronomists. While this is not a conscious decision, she hopes the company’s involvement in the GEI will also challenge its own understanding of gender equity.

“Some field staff may be very aware of the issue, and some would simply have no idea. The GEI will hopefully give them a platform to open their minds,” Schreier says. “We also need to arm our field teams with the skills to talk to women and understand their differences. We have trouble getting their opinion expressed because their voices are not as strong, but so often the women are the ones negotiating price and giving us more ideas on how to improve our income diversification strategies.”

Schreier hopes to see women’s industry participation become normalised, moving away from the forced nature of ensuring there’s a female coop board member, and instead allowing more natural positions of power because the woman is simply the best person for the job.

“Hiring a certain quota of female farmers doesn’t necessarily guarantee participation from her. That’s why we need more active participation of women across our farming practices and community development programs,” she says.

Caravela Coffee is a trader with 90 per cent of its employees based at origin, working directly with more than 4000 coffee growers in Latin America. As such, CEO Alejandro Cadena says work that focuses on empowering coffee growers, increasing resilience and generating further value at origin is extremely important.

“Historically, both in coffee producing countries and consuming countries, women have had many disadvantages. The root of this inequity lies in the colonial history of coffee, which spans more than four centuries. One of the findings that the work that the GEI has done over the past six months is that gender strategies are relatively new to the industry, often fewer than 10 years old, and that when they exist, they have been mostly driven by consumer demand,” Cadena says.

“Perhaps the biggest gender barriers lie in land rights and financial access of women. Women are a crucial part of the coffee industry. They are still marginalised by restricting their right to own land or have a bank account. Without land rights or bank accounts their access to credit is hindered, thus making it harder for women to progress, to invest in their farms and increase their yields and profitability.”

To help start a permanent industry shift, Caravela has provided economic support to develop the first steps of the GEI, with Cadena involved as a member of the Industry Development Team.

Rather than creating a siloed gender equity project, what Cadena values is the opportunity to weave the GEI within Caravela’s existing company strategies. This includes its own Grower Education Program and Extension and Advisory Services (EAS) teams of agronomists, which provides training to coffee growers in the seven countries in Latin America where it has sourcing operations. It is here that Caravela plans to be one of the beta testers for the GEI.

“More than using it in our buying process, we aim to use the Index to constantly improve our – that of our employees and coffee growers – understanding of gender equity and transform the provision of EAS to achieve a gender-equitable coffee industry from the ground up,” Cadena says.

“Ensuring that training and capacity building efforts reach women is vital to achieving higher quality coffee, which will in turn will provide coffee growing families with a higher income and thus a better quality of life.”

Cadena is aware this movement is a journey and not a destination. It will take time to achieve gender equity in coffee, not to mention the world, but he’s optimistic that through initiatives like the GEI and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the coffee industry will make significant progress in the next decade.

“I sincerely hope that we move from just selling or marketing women’s coffee, to properly addressing the many critical issues that on a daily basis affect women to make sustainable change,” he says. “We hope the index will be a first step into making gender equity a fundamental priority for all members of the industry and one that will help transform the coffee world into a more equitable and sustainable [place].”

For more information, visit www.genderincoffee.org

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