In this episode of Be Your Change, I talk to Vava Angwenyi about the importance of empowering women coffee growers. Being aware of where the coffee we drive comes from has a critical impact on women’s financial independence in Africa and Columbia. Vava was born and raised in Kenya. She decided to be part of the solution, and in 2009, she founded the social enterprise Vava Coffee. Vava saw smiles where others only saw poverty, corruption and fears. She noticed the voices of coffee farmers and their need to be heard.

Women “make up around 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries”. They are especially disadvantaged and usually have more limited access to both information and services. They hold more responsibilities around the house and are now taking over more and more of the agricultural workload as men migrate out of town to find work.

Coffee is the second most traded primary product in the world

Coffee is the second most traded primary product in the world. And the global market is estimated at more than $100 billion. So imagine what our impact could be if we were paying attention to where our cup of coffee comes from. Vava Coffee works with smallholder farmers. They are also traders and exporters of green coffee in bulk. Green coffee is coffee beans that haven’t been roasted yet. The beans are entirely raw and taste quite different from regular roasted coffee. It has a milder, more ‘herbal’ flavor.

Educating Women Coffee Farmers

Vava Coffee educates coffee producers with the knowledge they need to have better market access and understand what goes into producing a good quality coffee, how they can also negotiate better prices for themselves.

Integrating women and youth in the supply chain

Vava decided to help coffee farmers transformed their lives. She focuses on incorporating more women and youth in the supply chain. They mostly work with young people with a specific focus on women. They have run successful training for young women and currently have an ongoing project together with the Michigan university unit and the Williamson Davidson Institute. So they’re carrying out a research project in Colombia as regards their role in empowering women in the coffee supply chain.

Colorful Bags of Vava Women Coffee on a booth
Vava Women Grown Coffee

Women coffee growers don’t own much land worldwide, and it is a problem

It is difficult to find out how many women work in the coffee industry worldwide. However, it's more about how can we, for example, have women own land, rather than just being the labor on the farm.

89% of the labor on coffee farms, especially in Africa is provided by women.

Latin America is slightly opposite in terms of men being also the ones that provide the work. But in Africa, it's 89% of the women that are on the farms picking the coffee cherries. And they're not the ones who receive the payment for their work. When the husband finally delivers the coffee to the factory, women never quite get the earnings.

Women own less than 20% of all the land on the planet.

UN puts it at less than 10%. However, women make more than 50% of the population. And 400 million women farm and produce the majority of the world’s food supply.

How to break the cycle of land ownership for women coffee growers?

Vava is working hard to change this statistic and shift these unbalance. One of the initiatives is to have men empower women by giving them a few coffee trees. There's a lot of land issues. And of course, it's tough for some of these societies to have women own title deeds to the land. We've managed to have groups of men in different growing regions to give the women coffee plants.

Vava serving coffee to students

Women can take care of the coffee plants and have their source of income separated from the men. Women's coffee is also branded differently. And that way it fetches better prices for women.

According to the world economic forum, female farmers lack equal rights to own land in more than 90 countries.

To give you an idea: land and property can form up to 75% of a nation’s wealth. Ironically, 75% of the world’s population cannot prove they own the land on which they live or work. In fact, 90% of Africa’s land is still completely undocumented. It tells us exactly how big the problem is we are facing and women are the first affected by this matter.

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The impact of owning land for women coffee growers has a ripple impact

Women owning property has an effect on reducing domestic violence but also on humanity as a whole. Women invest 90% of their income in their immediate families. And when women own property, they tend to have more power in the house and better access to food. And finally, there’s a visible better outcome for their children.

Women tend to be better managers of financial resources

I mean, women, historically have been better managers of financial resources and they make a lot of the decisions in the household anyway as to where the money goes on what's needed in the family.

There's more work to be done in terms of just breaking the barriers to have women be brave enough to take some steps and, for example, have their own bank accounts. But also, reinvest in separate projects that might be more beneficial to their households.

It is shocking to learn that more than 1.3 billion women on the planet don’t have a bank account. It is roughly 30% of the world's women population.

woman picking up coffee beans

The Impact of Vava’s Social Enterprise On Women

In the Rift Valley in Kenya, Vava worked with roughly 400 women. Vava’s coffee launched the first fair trade certified women coffee in the whole of Africa. She helped them create their website and social media. Vava’s company also trained women on coffee quality as well as supported to get fundings by applying for a facility loan. They also looked at the family unit to help women get biogas units for their homes which, improve the quality of life overall.

biogas is basically a way of processing cow dung. Like you're basically, converting cow down into clean energy, which the women are using to cook instead of cutting firewood.

Biogas is a type of biofuel. It is produced from the decomposition of organic waste. It makes it environmentally friendly. And in Kenya, most of the cooking happens with firewood. Women and girls are the ones picking up the wood, which leads to lower rates of school enrollment for girls but also risks of health issues related to smoke inhalation and life fires. Families are able to do in a sustainable manner because each of these families has cows. The most significant impact on women has also been through training interns, and some of them are now full-time employees. Mentoring women now help them have careers in the coffee industry, and they have access to various opportunities.

What are some of the challenges Vava Coffee is experiencing?

There's more like systemic challenges. We're trying to fight a system that is really not working for producers and that's really not been working for a while. So through our work, we are trying to influence specific policy changes.

It is tough because a lot of the systems that we're trying to break up have been set up for a very long time way back to the colonial era as in most of these countries.

Another one is that it is a very capital intensive industry. Vava is continuously trying to fundraise and look for like large amounts of capital to enable them to run their own distribution in the markets they are approaching.

Who's been your inspiration?

Vava: I draw inspiration from various places, various people. I can say that physically that I've had any like good mentors, but I think I draw inspiration from other entrepreneurs. Those who's done amazing things. I do read a lot and listen to lots of podcasts and stories about being an entrepreneur. Any entrepreneur in the world who's managed to succeed despite all odds is for me is an amazing person. So I read a lot of these stories to get inspired.

I mean also just drawing inspiration from how great the world is if we all just worked together to make it a better place. Yeah.

Do you think your upbringing was a factor of your desire to help? Where I grew up, entrepreneurship was not a thing that you do after getting two degrees in school. I should have been carried on with my math career and been a successful finance person. However, of course, I do say that. I mean, I wouldn't be where I am, I was not brought up with the discipline because entrepreneurship requires a lot of discipline. My parents are responsible for that level of discipline and commitment to something. So, but I draw and get a lot of energy from just people around me that do great things.

How can our listeners and readers help women’s coffee initiatives?

Just buy coffee, drink coffee, supporter, farmer. Start asking questions when you go to your coffee shop and find out where they get the coffee. Find out how they source it. Consumers can really help shift some of the things that we're working on in the industry if they start asking more questions.

Additional Resources

  • Learn more about Fair Trade Coffee https://bakedbrewedbeautiful.com/small-business-saturday-coffee/
  • Visit Vava coffee for more information and buying their women coffee directly.

Interested in learning more about fair trade, we recommend listening to some of our previous episodes Episode 13: How AKS is Promoting Gender Equality in Pakistan and Episode 10 with Karrie Pukstas, a brand activist at Kroger on How Fair Trade Empowers Women To Be In Charge

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