The Intensification of Women’s Labor and the Future of Sustainable Coffee Supply

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 2.50.36 PMBy Colleen Anunu

When coffee buyers voice concern over the future of supply, they often list declining natural resources, market inefficiencies, and limited access to capital resources among many of the challenges that farmers face. Development economists argue that these constraints are further amplified by the “growing pains” of structural adjustment and economic transformation. Developing countries see agriculture decrease as a share of gross domestic product, a decline in public sector investment in the rural-agricultural sector, mass rural-to-urban migration in search of wage-generating employment, and a demographic shift in agricultural production systems. As the coffee industry considers market-based tactics in light of these factors, statistics and census data have shown that the reality of shrinking production margins and income diversification strategies of coffee-producing households has resulted in a critical consequence that can no longer be overlooked: the increase of women’s share of labor in agricultural activities.

In what is characterized as the “feminization of agriculture,” the declining profitability of farming activities and migration trends of male spouses have resulted in a greater number of women fulfilling a range of agricultural wage-earning occupations, as well as intensifying their on-farm, informal (unpaid) labor.[1]

When coupled with persistent regulatory and cultural biases such as limited land rights, inadequate (or often nonexistent) payment for labor, insufficient access to resources (assets, credit, networks), and time poverty, these shifts in responsibility for women have had significant negative impacts on the livelihood strategies and risk profiles for smallholder households. A number of research institutions and development organizations have identified the uneven, gender-based distribution of rights, resources and responsibilities as a key constraint to economic growth and food security for women, their families, and their communities. Furthermore, they argue that gender inequity also creates barriers for the diffusion of market information, the adoption of process innovations, and the effective delivery of incentives to smallholder farms.

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Addressing gender-based constraints in our coffee supply networks is crucial for the future of a sustainable supply from smallholder households. Over the last several years the specialty coffee industry has witnessed a proliferation of value-chain approaches in order to improve farmers’ livelihoods and mitigate default risk through investing in farmer capacity and incentivizing the adoption of market-based quality standards. These strategies for improvement, such as marginal productivity gains through high-yielding seed technologies, good agricultural practices training, and value addition at the farm level, require a robust understanding of the complex relationship between local-level cultural context and coffee supply chain coordination. Still, as many coffee buyers are ill-equipped to effectively analyze the complicated social, local-market, and household dynamics present in their supply chains, these interventions often ignore barriers to inclusion for women. The results indicate that not only do that these investments seldom address the diverse needs of farming households, but they can also actively contribute to sex segmentation at various production levels while unintentionally reinforcing barriers to women’s participation.[2]

How, then, can we navigate gender-based constraints at the smallholder level? An awareness of gender-based constraints that exist in our supply networks is the first step to providing enough guidance to develop our incentives and investments on a ‘do no harm’ basis. This means that considering the impact that our programs have on women’s 1) time and labor allocation (including return on investment); 2) Decision-making over agricultural production; 3) decision-making over household income; 4) access to and control over assets; and 5) social inclusion and community leadership could help avoid unintended consequences. Further, it is also important to consider the reverse: the impact of these gender-based barriers on our programs and supply chain relationships. Simply relying on price premiums and household income as indicators for incentive programs is an ineffective method to determining impact, as it is disconnected from a concern with inequality and intra-household distribution of income. Since smallholder farms make primary use of family labor to maintain and harvest their coffee, and in certain contexts women’s labor can provide the largest (and growing) share, production changes that include more intensive agricultural activities have been shown to increase women’s labor in comparison to that of men, without increasing their income or assets. When women are in a weaker bargaining position, they often work longer hours for lower economic returns. Recognizing women’s role in agricultural activities and supporting equal remuneration could contribute positively to the economic and social upgrading of women farmers and workers.[3]

A step beyond gender awareness involves incorporating both men and women in farmer-first analyses of social structures and barriers, utilizing gender-sensitive local knowledge to assist the development of equitable value chain development programs. At first glance, it may seem that men and women have equal opportunities to engage in and benefit from value chain activities. This is rarely the case. Regardless of context, the design of programs should consider all assets—tangible and intangible—needed to participate in a program, and how the distribution of those assets may exclude women or men (or those of other groups or categories) from participating. Actively addressing and working to transform barriers leads to empowerment and self-reliance at the individual and community level, with an intended result of the adoption and codification of our market-demanded production standards.

Supply chain interventions that simply rely on top-down, prescriptive approaches and ignore the importance of gendered barriers in social structures and local value chain activities will do little to assist in sustained self-reliance at community and farm levels. Without proper information and feedback on male and female farmers’ needs and priorities, the successful design and implementation of relevant and effective value chain programs will be hindered. Creating a shared vision with producing communities and supporting the move from farming systems where women shoulder the bulk of the productive and household labor burden to ones in which women and men share productive tasks, consult one another on methods, and benefit equally from market participation, works toward meeting all family needs while improving the stability of supply from smallholder communities.

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[1] Lyon, S. 2008. “We Want to be Equal to Them: Fair-Trade Certification and Gender Equity within Organizations.” Society for Applied Anthropology. Vol. 67, No. 3.

[2] Rubin, D. & Manfre, C. 2014. “Promoting Gender-Equitable Agricultural Value Chains: Issues, Opportunities, and Next Steps.” Gender in Agriculture: Closing the Knowledge Gap. Quisumbing, A.R et al. (eds). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[3] Barrientos, S. 2012. “Gendered Global Production Networks: Analysis of Cocoa-Chocolate Sourcing.” Regional Studies, Vol 48, No. 5.


Colleen Anunu is a master’s candidate in International Agriculture and Rural Development at Cornell University. Her research focuses on coffee value chain governance, entry points for supplier upgrading strategies through gender equity and systems of innovation frameworks, and international project design, implementation management, and evaluation. As an independent contractor, Colleen works on various grant-funded projects and research initiatives, including writing the literature review for the Coffee Quality Institute’s Partnership for Gender Equity. Colleen is currently serving as a member of the SCAA Board of Directors, is a Q Grader Assistant Instructor, and an SCAA Lead Instructor.