Empowering Women in Ethiopia’s Coffee Sector


LONG BEACH, California — Centuries ago, an Ethiopian goat herder noticed that members of his flock had become especially energetic after eating the fruits from a shrub-like tree; thus, discovering the coffee bean. While the accuracy of this origin story is contested, coffee plays a prominent role in Ethiopia’s culture and economy. Ethiopia is the fifth-leading exporter of coffee in the world and ranks first among African countries. However, in the Ethiopian coffee sector, not all are able to share equally in the fruits of their labor. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women account for 75% of the coffee production labor in Ethiopia while only receiving 34% of the income generated. As such, empowering women in Ethiopia’s coffee sector is vital to improve gender equality and poverty.

Female Empowerment in Ethiopia

The lack of female empowerment in Ethiopia hinders the progress made in poverty reduction efforts in the country. According to a report issued by the World Bank, the poverty rate in Ethiopia has decreased in the past decade, from 30% in 2011 to 24% in 2016. However, economic progress in rural areas lags behind that of urban centers.

Agriculture in Ethiopia relies on the coffee bean. Per the Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia, the livelihoods of an estimated 15 million Ethiopians depend on coffee production. In 2006, coffee exports accounted for 34% of the country’s total exports. As such, the coffee sector has become the focal point for continued poverty reduction efforts in Ethiopia. However, the World Bank indicates that the revenue from selling coffee is 39% lower for women-led households.

International organizations including Technoserve, Nespresso and the Louis Dreyfus Company, as well as local businesses, are working toward female empowerment in Ethiopia. The Borgen Project spoke with Tsegab Ayele, the manager of one such local business.

Local Businesses Leading the Way

Ayele is the general manager at Heleph Coffee, a coffee producer and exporter based in Ethiopia. Ayele notes that women often face a “double burden,” expected to work on the farms in addition to doing all of the housework. In order to compensate for this inequity, Heleph Coffee offers female employees higher wages, which eases the transition into the workplace. Heleph Coffee also provides female employees of all ages with comprehensive free healthcare services, including gynecology.

Heleph Coffee boasts a “traceable” product, ensuring quality from production to export. This guarantees that the product is properly valued within the wider coffee market. Additionally, it encourages female smallholders to found separate brands, armed with the assurance that a unique product will stand out against competitors.

Structural Changes and a Human Approach

“Wet processing” is a process vital to coffee production, as it improves the quality of the bean and adds value to the end-product. Because of the major role these wet-processing mills play, steps toward empowering women in Ethiopia’s coffee sector begin here. Technoserve, which partnered with Nespresso, worked with 96 coffee farmer organizations to shift the balance in the male-dominated arenas.

Technoserve trained its own staff in gender integration, designating a select few as “gender leads.” These gender leads would be at the forefront of the conversations with local women and male leadership. In discussions with leadership efforts, which included those in government and the farming cooperatives, the Technoserve staff emphasized the economic upside of increasing female participation in the sector.

In discussions with women, the company emphasized the benefits of becoming members in the farming cooperatives, a step up from the unofficial status as “day laborers.” Technoserve also negotiated with the cooperatives to allow women to pay the membership fees in installments, thus breaking down a considerable economic barrier that keeps women from assuming more prominent positions.

Technoserve also encouraged the coffee farming cooperatives to select women representatives, elevating women to positions of leadership. The representatives made key decisions with regard to resource allocation within the cooperatives, a significant step toward female empowerment in Ethiopia. Since the program’s inception, 3,619 women have become cooperative members, an increase in female membership by 25%. Further, 114 women have become cooperative leaders.

Working Within Gender Norms

Gender norms hinder women’s access to opportunities. Recognizing this, the Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), a leading merchant in the agricultural sector, sought to lighten the chore-load of the average Ethiopian woman.

LDC partnered with PUR Projet and Strauss Coffee to design and introduce a more efficient and sustainable cooking stove for rural Ethiopian households. The stoves, which utilize locally sourced material, have two main benefits: they are more sustainable, requiring about 50% less fuel than the stoves being replaced, and they are more efficient, decreasing the workload for the average Ethiopian woman and opening up opportunities outside the house.

One such opportunity is the “AAA Sustainable Quality” training program, a joint venture between Nespresso and Technoserve, which works with smallholder coffee farmers to become more sustainable and profitable. Sensitive to the prevailing gender dynamics in Ethiopia, the program encouraged husbands to bring wives into the initiative, an approach that helps assuage any misgivings from either men or women. At the inception of the program, female participation was at 1%. As of 2017, it had grown to 30%.

The AAA program promotes best practices for farming, such as composting and “stumping” — the method of cutting down coffee plants to encourage regrowth. Many farmers are wary of stumping, unable to afford the risk of cutting down a plant that does not grow back while plots that demonstrate the reliability of the practice are bringing people around. The demonstration plots are set up by the AAA program, led by women, and placed in areas frequented by women.

Lasting Change

Gender inequity is woven into society’s fabric, so a multi-faceted, people-centric approach to female empowerment in Ethiopia is necessary to create real change. For the economy as a whole, the best way to achieve long-term prosperity is to empower the women in Ethiopia’s coffee sector.

Greg Fortier
Photo: Flickr


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