Women’s Empowerment through Fairtrade

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Esther is an inspirational women to spend time with, I was lucky enough to do that last week. One could say that she is a living example of women’s empowerment. Esther is the chair of the Kabng’etuny Women in Coffee Association, a Co-op of 300 women in Kericho Kenya East Africa.  I’m sure many of you, like me, have heard stories from Fairtrade producers over the years; how Fairtrade has given producers a higher, fairer price for their crop, and how the social premium has benefited the whole community by paying for things like bore holes to bring clean water to whole communities and building classrooms to educate the next generation.

Esther’s story, and that of her women’s co-op is a little different. This is a what she told us. For a start their co-op is very new; only about 4 years old, although the women are by no means new to coffee farming. In their part of the world, like much of Africa the land is owned by the men, but the farming is done by the women. Esther reckons that about 80% of the coffee farming is done by the women, yet when the coffee is sold all the money goes to the men. This means that the women have to go to their husbands to ask for money every time they need to buy something. They have little power.

Fairtrade Africa gained funding to start a pilot project to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through Fairtrade. First they had to convince the landowning coffee farming men to gift some of their coffee bushes to their wives. This took some time, eventually working when the chair of the male dominated ‘parent’ co-op and his board (all men) lead by example and each gifted 70 of their coffee bushes to their wives.  At first they were worried, saying that the women would not be able to farm the bushes well, despite the fact that they were already doing the bulk of the work on the farms! Fairtrade Africa provided training for the women, an agronomist, to educate them on farming practices to improve both the quality and quantity of their harvests. This has proved hugely successful with the women’s coffee bushes being very healthy and their yield now better then that of the men. The women are very happy.

The project is also helping the women domestically. Traditionally the women walk about 2km over steep land to the forrest to collect fire wood to cook with. Not only is this time consuming and physically demanding, it is also very bad for the environment and not sustainable. The smoke from the open fires causes illnesses particularly eye and breathing problems. The project had so far provided biogas cookers to just over half of the co-op members. The bio gas is generated from cow dung, cheap and readily available, providing clean fuel for cooking in the home without the smoke of open fires. The bi product of the biogas is a slurry which is nutrient rich and used as cheap organic fertiliser.

So this is all great news. However its not the full story. The farmers are being seriously effected by climate change. Last year they had a drought lasting 3 months when the coffee bushes were in flower. The coffee cherries come from the flowers, so when the flowers died due to the drought, the harvest dropped. Esther personally saw a 50% drop in her harvest. The co-op and their ‘parent co-op’ are both certified Fairtrade. However neither co-op have sold any of their crop as Fairtrade, they have had to sell their coffee on the open market as no buyer wanting Fairtrade certified coffee could be found for them. It is a common misconception that Fairtrade certification guarantees sales, it doesn’t. The farmers are dependant on their being demand for Fairtrade in the market.

Many of the audience at Esther’s talk were shocked that they were not getting the Fairtrade price and social premium for their coffee, despite being certified. They were also taxed by the drought asking about irrigation options. It was sobering to hear that the women are still collecting water from the river in buckets for their domestic use in the home, collecting water to irrigate is a long way off. Despite this the women of Esther’s co-op are happy. They have healthier coffee bushes that are yielding quality coffee beans which they are selling at the coffee market. They have a degree of financial independence they have never experienced before. There is women’s empowerment and they hope many more women will be able to join them when their husbands see the example they are setting. The women also have plans for how they will spend the social premium when they manage to sell some of their coffee to Fairtrade buyers.

But Esther was able to highlighted two things we can do to help them more. First demand the Fairtrade option, the coffee companies will only buy Fairtrade coffee if we, the customers, ask for it, otherwise they are most likely to choose regular, often cheaper coffee. Second we can change our behaviour to reduce our impact on climate change. What we do has a far greater impact on the climate than the behaviour of Esther and her community, and yet they are the ones already living with its negative impacts.