Women in Colombia’s Coffee-Growing Families Are Taking a Seat at the Table

Care for a cup of Josefina?

Women are participating in a workshop in Colombia designed to increase gender equity on coffee plantations. (Photo: Coffee Quality Institute)

Oct 29, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jenny Neill covers stories on business, agriculture, food, and science as a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Sprudge.com, and STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International.

Kimberly Easson remembers the brief, awkward moment when lunch was about to be served at the Ausecha coffee farm in La Sierra, Colombia, earlier this month. Six international visitors and 34 members of a local cooperative were spending a “day in the life of a producer” arranged in Colombia’s mountainous southwest by the Coffee Quality Institute. As the group visited coffee fields, processing facilities, and dorms for temporary workers who pick the fruit, the Ausecha family showed their visitors how various tasks on the farm were divided among family members.

Then came lunch. For the task of serving, cooperative members deliberately swapped roles: The women took seats at the table, and the men prepared and delivered the food and drinks to them and their guests.

As the group chatted, Easson recalled that “the women glanced anxiously toward the kitchen.” Then they laughed at their own worry that “the men would make a mess of their kitchen,” she said.

“We’ve had visitors in the past, but this was the first time that we were able to sit at the table and talk to other women,” says Loreiny Fernanda Cifuentes Garzon in a video CQI made to document the occasion. She was a guest of the Ausecha family that day and like them, is a member of the coffee cooperative Asprosi. “What struck me the most is how well we related to each other as we exchanged questions. It was very special,” she said.

The role-swapping was part of the first of four workshops designed by CQI, a Southern California–based nonprofit that provides training and technical assistance to coffee producers around the world, which are designed to explore the effects of gender inequality along the coffee supply chain. A recently launched initiative at CQI seeks to encourage discussion of the issue among male and female coffee farmers and with coffee professionals from importing countries. The CQI initiative draws on research that suggests when women in places like Colombia are more directly involved with the operation of small farms and in business organizations, effects can include improved quality and yield of the agricultural product.

Easson hopes the series fosters more change than the typical professional conference. “How often do we really engage in a conversation about who we are as human beings and what kind of a difference we want to make?” she said.

Rebecca Morahan, an independent researcher and trainer, facilitated the workshop sessions using tools selected from the Gender Action Learning System, which is derived from development work done in Uganda. The initial CQI workshops aim to collect preliminary information on gender inequity and to find out what would be needed to expand the program.

This was the first time that we were able to sit at the table and talk to other women. What struck me the most is how well we related to each other.

Loreiny Fernanda Cifuentes Garzon, member, Asprosi coffee collective

Cafeteras, or female coffee producers, face many obstacles in being able to fully participate in organizations such as the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC) or other cooperatives that provide access to international coffee markets. They have long been relegated to jobs they could perform without compromising their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

Colombian women in coffee farming are starting to take on greater responsibility for more of the operations required to harvest, mill, roast, and sell coffee berries on the international market. Yet their duties rearing children, preparing meals, and managing households have not diminished (sound familiar?). It’s a circumstance CQI would like to change, and Empresa Cooperativa del Sur del Cauca, the 1,000-member co-op that helped organize the October workshop in La Sierra, is onboard.

On the last day of the CQI gender equity workshop, Easson, CQI’s vice president of strategic partnerships, and Morahan invited participants to share what aspect of the experience had affected them the most.

The effort carries on as Colombia undergoes an intense period of change. New investments are flowing in as foreign companies seek to exploit its natural resources. Meanwhile, negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia aimed at ending decades of armed conflict continue.

Yet changes to women’s roles in business and politics have not been welcomed by some in this largely Catholic and male-dominated society. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that only 20 percent of respondents in Colombia believed women are respected. A recent rise in acid attacks, largely perpetrated by men against women, shows how some are resorting to violence to punish those who veer from tradition.

Change among coffee producers can only begin by obtaining basic data, such as the percentage of women in positions of authority on farms. In the last Colombian census, women outnumbered men 10 to one as primary homemakers in rural settings. The FNC only recently began tracking the share of women who own or have primary responsibility for the more than 500,000 farms in its database; as of July, the figure was 29 percent.

Ana Maria Lleras, coordinator of the FNC’s Coffee-Growing Women Program, said the new data enables her to measure progress. “Now we can [make] reports year by year, and we have information about participation of women voting” in elections for FNC positions, she said.

That information indicates that efforts like those made by CQI and FNC are beginning to pay off. More women were elected to municipal and departmental committees in the FNC this year than were chosen in the 2010 election, the first in which gender data were available.

The early success bodes well for CQI’s ability to build on the October workshop. Easson said she expects gender equity in coffee-growing countries to be one of the subjects tackled in one or more symposium sessions at the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference in April.

“These spaces, in [past] years, have only been made for men. But now it is changing,” Lleras said.