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Coffee’s gender data gap

From the August 2018 issue.

While some general truths are known about gender inequality in coffee, the industry is severely lacking data on women in coffee – hard data that organisations need in order to make decisions on programs, policies, interventions and investments to clo

Nearly 50 years ago, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released some startling statistics on the disparity between women’s major contributions in agriculture despite minimal opportunities given. The stats did exactly what they were intended to do: get people to pay attention. They worked so well that those stats are still circling the world today, even though the UNDP reneged on them in 2011. The claims weren’t completely inaccurate, but the UNDP author later admitted that they were based on limited and very general data.

Yet, those “zombie statistics” are still being published.

The reality is that there actually isn’t much reliable, publicly available data on women in agriculture, especially coffee. Some of the data that is available is either based on old, outdated studies or limited studies that may not capture an appropriate sample size or degree of diversity. Other data is based on a specific category, region or unique scenario and, thus, can’t be applied to other geographies or on a global level. And further data may be biased because of how or where participants were surveyed.

In 2008, the UN International Trade Centre (ITC), in partnership with the Africa Fine Coffee Association, conducted a study on some of the zombie statistics in hope of securing a better grasp on women in coffee. But rather than producing significant, reliable data that could be used going forward, the ITC came to a different conclusion.

“There is very little information and next to no hard data available on the role of women in the coffee sector in coffee-producing countries,” reads a joint 2008 report by ITC and the East African Fine Coffee Association.

This reality struck an alarming chord with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), whose core purpose is supporting and promoting women in coffee.

“I think it was a case of seeing what was out there and a light bulb going off [because] this data is critical to empowering women at local and global levels,” explains IWCA President Kellem Emanuele. “So much data across the value chain is just not collected, so we don’t have an accurate sense of the representation of women in many stages of the chain.”

Emanuele comes from a background in sustainability where it is critical to make business cases for investment decisions. But without reliable data, the decisions or investments being made regarding women in coffee face high and unnecessary risk.

Following the ITC’s findings, the IWCA launched the Research Alliance, a network of researchers, experts and IWCA chapter members who are working together on projects aimed at eliminating the gender data gap – so that the IWCA, and other institutions, can better work toward eliminating the gender equality gap. Led by IWCA global board member Ruth Ann Church, the Research Alliance has set out a three-phase project to estimate the number of women working in coffee and measure basic indicators to understand their context in the value chain.

In June, Church announced two achievements to date: estimates from seven of the 20 IWCA chapter countries have been collected and made publicly available, and IWCA’s Brazil chapter (the largest) published an e-book on Brazilian women’s roles in coffee. The e-book will be released at the International Coffee Organization’s (ICO) biannual meeting in September.

“Ten years down the road, we can safely say that the ITC’s 2008 report was a watershed moment, bringing attention to the issues of women in coffee and the lack of credible data on women’s roles in producing countries. The core message of the report is as dire and needed today as it was 10 years ago,” writes Church in the IWCA blog post announcing the achievements.

Meanwhile, Nespresso is also leading data-collection efforts to help remedy the gender data gap. Under Nespresso’s AAA Program, sustainability and gender equality consultant Melanie Landthaler has been leading a team in developing a gender analysis tool with the help of project partner TechnoServe.

Development of the tool has included rigorous data collection across coffee-producing regions in Indonesia, Guatemala and Ethiopia, and in-depth gender analysis to help Nespresso AAA make more appropriate and impactful interventions that reduce gender disparities and increase women’s empowerment. A questionnaire was customised for each region, and enumerators were trained in specific techniques for interviewing the more than 250 randomly selected female and male coffee farmers.

The field-tested tool, which will also be presented at the ICO meeting, will provide a blueprint that Nespresso AAA can use to generate insights for decision-making, investments and interventions in its other regions, as well as in assessments years from now. Landthaler is quick to point out, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is where some of the studies producing the zombie statistics failed.

She points to the variation they encountered even within countries. “The women in North Sumatra had very different needs and faced very different challenges than the women in South Sumatra just a few hours away,” Landthaler tells Global Coffee Report. “It’s very important to make clear that the studies [are specific to each] region, so I can’t take the results of one study in Guatemala and apply them to all of Guatemala.”

The other components of the data collection that Landthaler says are crucial to obtaining hard, reliable facts are the questions asked and how they were asked. The addition of qualitative questions provided more context and allowed interviewees to elaborate, which painted a more accurate picture than narrow quantitative questions could have.

Additionally, women and men were interviewed separately, which led to more candid answers among the respondents. Societal norms and cultural traditions and values weigh heavily in many coffee-producing regions, so the relationships and roles of men and women had to be considered.

Some values on women’s ability to own land, manage money, hold leadership positions and make decisions are so deeply entrenched that they often supersede legal rights, says Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability Officer at the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), which re-released its gender equality white paper earlier this year.

This is one of the many issues on the gender landscape that make field research challenging. Other obstacles are more logistical: the far and remote locations of many smallholder farmers, limited budgets to fund such research, and issues arising from volunteer-based efforts.

For sustainability leaders working to deliver initiatives that support women in coffee, they don’t have data to make a strong business case for funding. Meanwhile, they need funds and a business case to actually collect data.

Instead of hard data, the gender equality space is wrought with limited “anecdotal evidence that is often teary and emotional”, Landthaler admits.

Ironically, her initial introduction to the gender data gap is anecdotal. In 2008, she started working in in coffee as a sustainability manager at one of the world’s largest green coffee exporters. As the only woman in a manager-level position, she was confronted with gender inequality in coffee from day one. The discrimination wasn’t contained to her position or even her division, though.

“I saw this repeated all throughout the coffee supply chain,” she says, pointing to the all-male team of agronomists that she inherited in the role and the company-led trainings where female farmers were generally not invited.

In North Sumatra, at the time of the study, women were responsible for 13 of the 15 coffee-producing tasks, but it was mostly men who attended training, Landthaler explains.

“We were proud of training thousands of smallholder farmers every year as part of sustainability efforts, yet we had not managed to get the people who actually needed the knowledge to the trainings. If women are involved in coffee, they have to be at those trainings [otherwise] the knowledge is lost.”

The World Economic Forum (WEF) speaks of this loss in its latest edition of “The Global Gender Gap Report.”

“When women and girls are not integrated – as both beneficiary and shaper – the global community loses out on skills, ideas and perspectives that are critical for addressing global challenges and harnessing new opportunities,” writes WEF Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab in the report’s preface.

The global organisation, which monitors a Global Gender Gap Index, reports that in 2017, global gender parity reversed for the first time since the index was created in 2006. Compared to 83 years in 2016, WEF now estimates it will take 100 years to close the global gender gap. Although a number of the indexed countries crossed milestones in their gender parity efforts last year, some major economies and high-population countries have actually lapsed in their progress.

At the farm level, if granted the same access to training, as well as other information, resources, technology and support, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that women could improve productivity and quality on their farms significantly. The FAO actually cites supporting data with that claim but, as with much of the existing data on women in coffee, experts in the gender data gap movement caution its global application.

Regarding the improvements in productivity and quality, IWCA’s Emanuele offers other factors, which, without supporting data, she is careful to call speculation. Because women aren’t traditionally included in trainings and men are the only landowners in some regions, women may be new to the table and so “generally speaking, may come at opportunities like these with a hunger to learn and make the most of them”, she tells GCR. “Much like anyone, irrespective of gender, they’re more open to hearing about new innovations or ways of doing things.”
At levels of the coffee value chain beyond the farm, women similarly lack opportunities and access to resources.

“The roles on each end of the coffee value chain – those that tend to have lower pay, fewer opportunities and benefits, and more vulnerabilities – have really high percentages of women,” explains SCA’s Ionescu. “You often see more women as farm workers and in barista roles than you do in the roasting facility or the import house. Those middle roles are really where the power and the value are concentrated. Women are there, but there are fewer and fewer of them as you get closer to the power and money.”

Nespresso’s Landthaler echos Ionescu’s sentiment, saying that “gender equality doesn’t only matter at origin, it matters everywhere – from Indonesia and Guatemala to Switzerland and the United States”. She emphasises that the first step to making an impactful change is to understand the problem before attempting to address it or investing in a perceived solution – and that’s where the need for data comes in.

“There is a lot one has to know before you can be sure you’re doing the right thing and that it has a direct impact on human beings in very vulnerable positions,” Landthaler says, which is the motivator behind the Nespresso AAA Gender Analysis Tool. “If you want to improve livelihoods, [isn’t it] time to collect some data and information about the struggles that our female producers truly face and spread that?”

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