Women in Coffee
An update on the Burundi chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance
On a recent trip to East Africa, our Green Buyer, Charlie Habegger, traveled to Kayanza, Burundi, to attend a celebration with farmers from Kinyovu Washing Station. The farmers, who are members of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), were set to receive their first premium, earned from our purchase of their coffee. When we brought Kinyovu's bright washed coffee to our guests one year ago, we were excited for the rare chance to not only acknowledge the women farmers behind it, but also pay a premium that directly supports the group's mission of gender equity. So when Charlie realized that he would be within a short plane trip of this year's celebration, he couldn't pass up the opportunity.
The IWCA is a global peer network with self-governing chapters in more than twenty countries. Its mission is “to empower women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives.” Across the coffee industry, women make up the majority of workers, but they receive a disproportionately small share of the profits, have limited access to capital and training, and rarely own their land.
Jeanine Niyonzima-Arioian, founder of JNP Coffee, an export company based in the United States, first encountered IWCA when she was in her native Burundi on behalf of a nonprofit that she co-founded to address systemic poverty. Jeanine, determined to better the lives of her fellow Burundians, was drawn to the IWCA and decided to use her coffee export business as a way to get even more women farmers involved in the IWCA. That was in 2013, when there were one hundred members. Today, there are more than 2,000.
The landlocked country of Burundi, straddling East and Central Africa, is among the world’s poorest. Most of its people earn a living through agriculture, though most crops are grown for subsistence rather than for profit. Coffee, a relative newcomer brought by colonialist Belgium in the 1930s, is the country’s largest source of revenue. Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi shares an equatorial climate that’s mountainous, stunning, and conducive to coffee. And like Rwanda, its best coffees are dynamic, bright, and refreshing.
Each farmer contributing to Kinyovu Washing Station owns between twenty-five to fifty coffee trees. The income from so few trees is modest at best, and an IWCA membership (initiated with a small annual fee that can be waived) gives farmers the potential to earn a premium, in addition to the initial purchase price. This means that months after Kinyovu Washing Station buys coffee cherry from a farmer, she receives an additional payment—often equal to her initial earnings—when that same coffee sells to a roaster or exporter under the aegis of the IWCA.
While women comprise the majority of Burundi’s IWCA membership, men are welcome to join, too. In rural communities where all-women organizations are rare, winning the trust from the entire community is a crucial step toward women's empowerment and equality.
A Premium that Pays Dividends
Our purchase last year from Kinyovu Washing Station was our first IWCA-associated coffee. To fund its profit-sharing system, we paid $1.12 per pound in addition to the coffee's baseline price. This amounted to a premium of $13,185 that was distributed to more than a thousand women, and nearly one hundred men, who grew the coffee for Kinyovu Washing Station. The entire Burundi IWCA chapter earned a premium of $80,000 in 2017.
Jeanine says that farmers use that money to buy bicycles, motorcycles, or even used cars, so that delivering coffee cherry is easier, and travel for the family is more efficient. Some farmers purchase cows, gaining a source of manure for the farm and milk for their families. Others buy tools as basic as a hoe. In a country where nearly eighty percent of the population lives in poverty, this premium, which comes between harvests, when farmers' incomes are stagnant, has real and lasting effects.
"Joyous and hopeful," is how Charlie described the premium ceremony. In a speech, he told the hundreds of farmers in attendance, “We see you. When we drink your coffee, we think of you.”
"A visit like Charlie's is crucial," Jeanine explains, "because it helps to connect women farmers to the larger supply chain, giving them a reason to believe in a more transparent process. Few women are in leadership positions, but as women are given access to education and training, they’re likelier to have the confidence to invest in their farm, innovate, and share the resulting wealth with their entire families."
When asked how Jeanine hopes IWCA Burundi grows, she points to the present: On a national level, the chapter is working to change policies, so that women producers can register coffee in their name. Jeanine oversees a new financial literacy training program, helping farmers to find secure ways to save their money and make prudent investments with their premiums. Plans are also unfolding for a cupping lab, which would allow farmers to taste the coffee they grow.
At the moment, tea is the drink of choice in most of these farmers' homes. But as they become empowered to take a more active role in the quality of their coffees, we wouldn't be surprised if that changed, too.
Photos provided by JNP Coffee.