Women in Coffee

In 2020, I interviewed Shirin Moayyad of Sweet Bean Coffee for my book Crop to Cup and my blog. I now invite her back to take part in our ‘Women in Commodities’ series.

Good morning, Shirin. You have recently started selling a range of coffees produced by women. Could you tell me a little about your motivation for that?

There is a belief in my parents’ faith that if you have two children, one boy and one girl, you should educate the girl first as she is likely to have fewer opportunities in life than the boy. My parents raised me with this early belief in affirmative action.

When I talked with David Griswold, the founder of Sustainable Harvest, he told me that women-produced coffee is often better than men-produced coffee. Is that your experience?

Dave introduced me to Fatima Ismael, a lady cooperative coffee producer and agronomist in Nicaragua. In her case, and in the case of the women with whom she works, it is true that women-produced coffee is better than men-produced coffee.

Fatima compares woman farmers to women as mothers. We care for the earth as we care for our children. Of course, that isn’t the case everywhere, but it seems to be in the case for Fatima and Nicaragua.

David also mentioned that paying women for coffee means that more money stays with the family than when you pay men. Is that a factor in your decision to sell women-produced coffee?

The Partnership for Gender Equity – a spin-off from the Coffee Quality Institute – is one of the more prominent and more renowned initiatives around women in coffee. It estimates that for every dollar that a woman coffee grower earns, she will spend 90 cents on the household; a man would pay 40 cents. Even if those figures are not entirely accurate, they do give an idea of the situation.

Nicaragua is well-known for women coffee growers. Is it a cultural thing?

You are right; there are a lot of women coffee growers in Nicaragua. During the civil war, the men were away, and the women had to run the farms and work the land. It helped the development of women in farming in the country.

Women supply 70 per cent of the labour force on coffee farms in Ethiopia, but few are educated, and many are illiterate. In Brazil, by comparison, I met women coffee growers who tended to be from the higher echelons of society, well-educated and well-off. It doesn’t mean all women farmers in Brazil fall into this category, but that was my experience there.

But it can also vary within countries. If you take the island of Sumatra, there are two distinct regions from which we source speciality coffee: North Sumatra and Ace. Women dominate the supply chain in North Sumatra, but in Ace, men dominate the supply chain.

In Costa Rica, I came across two radically different lady coffee farmers. One was from an enlightened family background where, at the age of 14, her father taught her how to drive the family truck, prune trees, apply fertilizer and manage the entire farm. The second lady grower had been physically abused and nearly beaten to death by her parents and then her husband. They both told her that she was too stupid to drive a car or manage a coffee farm. The police eventually put the husband in prison, and the woman now successfully runs the farm with her daughter.

Abuse tends to stop when a woman starts bringing money home. In their book Half the Sky, the authors write about a woman in Burundi whose husband had abused her until she got micro-financing for a business. Once she did, her husband realized her economic value – her potential to bring money into the family – he stopped his abuse.

What is holding women back in the coffee world?

Women may grow the coffee, but they rarely own the land. Land ownership is a critical requirement for belonging to a cooperative. Everyone likes to think that cooperatives work to benefit everyone in the community, but they often exclude women growers because they can’t prove they own the land.

Not being a cooperative member means that women have less access to credit, agricultural inputs, training, and market information. They are denied leadership and are cut off from decision making. Also, not being a cooperative member often excludes women farmers from the training that many well-intentioned foreign NGOs might offer.

In many countries, women grow the coffee but men transport and sell it. Women not only have to grow coffee, but they also have to participate in the supply chain. When women are doing 70 per cent of the labour, you have to include then in the sale of their produce. They can, and must, contribute to making the coffee sector more viable, healthy, quality-orientated and profitable.

What more could we do to promote women in coffee producing countries?

As a coffee roaster and buyer, my personal choice is that quality comes first. If I am faced with two coffees of equal quality and one is produced by a woman and one by a man, I will choose the former. For example, I have recently started a line of Sumatran coffee made by a women’s cooperative. I had a choice of various equally good coffees from the region, and I chose the women-grown one. I will not discriminate against quality for gender equality.

If you are a coffee buyer and you have a choice between equally outstanding coffees produced by both men and women, I urge you to choose the one made by the latter. Encouraging more women growers will improve coffee quality and be beneficial for the families that produce it. Doing so will strengthen the integrity of the value chain and make it more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

I understand that you have recently been crowdfunding for your start-up and to promote women in coffee. Could you tell me a little more about that?

I am crowdfunding to finance a new roasting machine. I started with a small roaster, but my business is growing fast, and I need more capacity. Having a larger roaster will give me leverage to buy more women-produced coffee. I have three different women-produced coffees, but as I grow, I will source more.

Thank you, Shirin, for your time and input.

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