Reflections on Global Washington’s Event, “Women Hold Up Half the Cup: Empowering Women in Coffee-Growing Regions of the World”

By Ulrike Hoessle

Global Washington reception on women’s empowerment in coffee-growing regions.
Speakers included Andrea Ribeiro Gonçalves Mendes, COOPFAM; KJ Zunigha, Global Partnerships; Frank Rubio, Oikocredit; Kelly Goodejohn, Starbucks; Colleen Anunu, Fair Trade USA; and Kristen Dailey, Global Washington. Photo by Hanna Hwang.

In April 2018, the Global Specialty Coffee Expo returned to Seattle – the “world’s capital of coffee,” according to Global Washington Executive Director, Kristen Dailey. To mark the occasion, Global Washington held a reception alongside the Expo to highlight how its members are working towards women’s empowerment in coffee-growing regions of the world.

Access to Resources, Decision-making and Land Titles Crucial for Women’s Empowerment

Most coffee is produced by smallholder farms with less than ten hectares. Producing coffee and specialty coffee is – according to Colleen Anunu of Fair Trade USA and Director of the Specialty Coffee Association – a family activity. Women’s work in the household cannot be separated from the agricultural activities where women are involved in every stage of the coffee production. In general, the male family members hold the land titles, own the trees or are members of the cooperative, and therefore they receive the cash. Women’s work, although somewhat behind the scenes, is critical for the reliability of the delivery and the overall quality of coffee. Access to resources and information, decision-making over income or agricultural processes, time management, and female leadership in the cooperatives or businesses are crucial for the empowerment of women. The single main criteria to address the power structure is landownership. To get a loan or to become a member of a cooperative, a farmer needs a land title. The buyer can enforce the implementation of women’s empowerment by establishing gender criteria for their suppliers and by providing technical assistance that includes gender issues. Women’s empowerment principles are described in more detail in USAID’s Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index or in the United Nations’ Women’s Empowerment Principles.

Training and Loans for Female Coffee Producers

In the last 20 years, Starbucks aimed to make coffee-growing more sustainable through its Ethical Sourcing program and through loans, training, and distributing trees to farmers. Recently, as Kelly Goodejohn, the director of social impact and public policy for Starbucks explained, the company started to identify how these resources are benefiting women. Starbucks works with 380,000 farmers across 30 countries, 95% of them are smallholder farmers. One third are female smallholders which makes gender inclusion a priority. In Colombia, the farmers’ loan program provides eight-year loans to over 2,000 women farmers to buy higher quality, climate resistant coffee trees. In addition, the Starbucks Foundation that focused in the past on water access, sanitation, and health, has begun including women’s empowerment in its mission statement, with the aim to empower 250,000 women by 2025 through promoting women’s leadership, education, and healthy homes (nutrition, water access, health). In the future, Starbucks is planning to monitor the success of these initiatives in order to identify and scale up positive examples.

Gender Criteria to Qualify for Better Loans 

Women’s contribution is crucial for the success of small and medium-sized enterprises and cooperatives, according to Frank Rubio, Oikocredit’s Head of Global Agriculture. Established in 1975, Oikocredit (Netherlands) is a social impact investor with more than one billion Euros in lending and equity investments. Agriculture represents 15% of its investments, with coffee-growing being one third of the agricultural activities. In 2007, Oikocredit established gender policies internally and for its partner organizations. Today, a partner organization must meet – amongst other requirements – gender criteria to qualify for a loan. Before deciding whether to cooperate with an organization, Oikocredit performs a due diligence process with score cards that include a detailed gender analysis. For its partner organization, Oikocredit offers trainings and services geared toward women, such as microloans and health clinics.

Because coffee is largely a male-dominated industry, offering financial services for women in this sector can be difficult. However, some lessons learned from previous experiences show the importance of a governance structure with a certain percentage of women, specific loan products geared toward activities in which women are engaged, such as vegetable farming, animal rearing or managerial training for women who own businesses. In addition, Oikocredit offers incentives such as discounted loans for cooperatives that have gender policies in place. Many of its partner organizations have part-time positions for women in coffee sorting or full-time employment for women in middle management and accounting.

Gender Training for Women and Men

One of Oikocredit’s partner organizations is the Brazilian Coffee Cooperative COOPFAM in Minas Gerais. Its financial manager, Andréa Ribeiro Gonçalves Mendes, described how the cooperative started to include women in their management and operations. Women always accompanied their husbands to the cooperative’s meetings, she said, but they didn’t have a voice in the decision-making process.

In 2006, COOPFAM established gender policies and realized that there was a demand for organic coffee that also contributes to the empowerment of women. Today, a part of the profits finance trainings, technical assistance and health projects, not only for members of COOPFAM, but for the whole community. The leadership team is composed of five men and two women – and the vice president is a woman.

COOPFAM was the first enterprise in the region to hire a woman to provide technical assistance. The cooperative plays an important role in assisting women to believe in themselves through exchange programs and trainings, and in showing men that women perform well in leadership roles and technical jobs.

Asking the Right Questions to Design and Evaluate Projects that Empower Women

To really understand what the impact of a project is towards women’s empowerment, the project needs to be designed from the start with a gender lens. KJ Zunigha, the Impact Evaluation Officer of Global Partnerships, explained how program aspects that are geared towards women might fail if the organizer does not ask the questions necessary to understand the women’s life situations. For example, trainings that involve overnight stays can lead to the exclusion of women, as most women are not able to spend a long period away from their homes. Other questions to ask include whether women have the right to own land titles, whether they have legal support to get land titles, whether they can be members of the cooperative or how the cooperative handles the silent contributions of women who are not the primary members of the cooperative, but highly involved in coffee-growing.


Ulrike Hoessle (WWS Worldwide) consults for non-profits on fundraising, organizational development, strategic planning and for companies on business & human rights. Previously, she worked for foundations and other non-profits on human rights, women empowerment and environmental policies in Africa and Latin America. She has a M.A in Cultural Anthropology and a Ph.D. in Political Science.