This IWD we sat down with Joanna Lawson, Operations Manager at Volcafe. Volcafe are one of our closest green coffee importing partners- our current House Espresso from Brazil is sourced in partnership with them. Joanna gives some great insights into the challenges and opportunities faced by women in the specialty coffee sector.

- What are the biggest challenges for female producers you work with?

The challenges vary from origin to origin (and family to family). Our gender work is focussed in East Africa where we consider this work to be most urgent. Here women generally have little or no control over finances and are not included in the decision-making over how income should be spent. Alcoholism is an issue, and domestic violence is rife. Girls have little access to education at school; they are called upon to support the family with household chores while the boys are educated. As adults working in coffee, the women are rarely invited to agronomy training or to community meetings; they are simply overlooked. In addition to any work on the farm or in processing, the women manage the household and care for the children.  In many places water and firewood must be collected from far away, and electricity is a luxury not everyone can afford. In origins where land-ownership laws do not prevent women from owning their own land, and they are fortunate enough to do so, they are in the minority in all situations and face discrimination and undermining. They must navigate the unchartered waters of a culturally unconventional power dynamic and compensate in other areas of their lives to keep the peace.

-What would you like to see companies doing this year to promote and contribute to women’s equality?

First and foremost, we need to make sure we have our own houses in order. It is not mandatory to join in IWD activities, but if we are going to do it, then let's do it right! It's very nice to be 'celebrated', but that's not what this is about. I'd like for IWD to become a women's inequality audit deadline.  I'd like for organisations to sift through their structures and workforces, find the weak spots and state what they plan to do about it. In small companies it might not be appropriate to have policies and quotas: that's ok! The key is that we don't talk about inequality for women as if it's something removed from ourselves.  Women make up half the population - it's part of all our lives, every day.

- Have you seen changes for women since you’ve been working in coffee?

I have been incredibly fortunate in my career. I have been hired, supported and promoted by women but largely by men, and I have worked hard in reciprocation. I have often been the only woman in a situation and although for me personally that was not necessarily an issue, there has been a noticeable increase in women as buyers or in decision-making positions in the specialty sector. Coffee is an incredible industry full of people who want to use their profession as a force for good in the world.  We can be really proud of that. 

About Volcafe

Volcafe provides the beans for 80 billion cups of coffee each year, so the impact they can have at origin is huge. They are committed to a sustainable future for coffee, which includes a commitment to level the playing field for women farmers. Read more about this important work here.