Women are responsible for much of the coffee quality processing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo credit to Lucy O’Bryan Photography)

In May 2021, the Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE) hosted a webinar titled “Advancing Gender Equity in the Democratic Republic of Congo” to discuss gender equity within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s coffee sector, and to highlight actions taken toward improving it.

The webinar opened with an acknowledgment of the partnership between Equal OriginsELAN RDC, and USAID’s Feed the Future Strengthening Value Chains (SVC) DRC activity.

Representatives from producer organizations, project implementers, and industry representatives who participated in the webinar highlighted the opportunity for action in the DRC and voiced their support for the wider conversation about gender equity. The discussion brought together actors throughout the coffee supply chain with the aim to create a common language that can be shared among all participants and stakeholders in the supply chain.

Kimberly Easson, the Founder and CEO of PGE, and a panelist in the May 2021 webinar said: “[PGE] believes gender equity is the foundation for a sustainable coffee sector.” She added that “by helping foster this understanding, we can then encourage meaningful action with a real impact, [which is] the basis for the work in the DRC that we’ve been doing.”

PGE also introduced its new platform for industry engagement on gender equity — the Buyer-Supplier Alliance.

Why the DRC?

The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. Due to decades of political instability and conflict, overall development in the DRC has been blocked for more than sixty years. As a result, the human development indicators are among the lowest in the world. Currently, the DRC scores a low 0.652 on the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Equity Index, ranking 152 out of 160 countries.

The outlook for women in the DRC remains equally dire, evidenced by their continued absence from all fora in which decisions are made. In addition, their access to economic resources and production factors remains very limited. Local cultures do not favor the inclusion of women in decision-making processes due to traditional gender roles and the expectation that women take care of children and household tasks. As coffee plays an important role in the DRC’s economy, promoting the empowerment of women in the coffee sector is one way of addressing these systematic challenges.

Over the last ten years, cooperatives — groups of coffee producers working together to gain better access to resources — have started to form in the DRC, but access is often limited for women. Many cannot afford to become members or are made to feel uncomfortable when they do join because of lingering stereotypes and biases against them.

“Women have been marginalized and more oppressed,” Easson explained. “The focus is on elevating women to increase [their] participation in co-operatives, in terms of membership and governance bodies, and to help foster more gender equitable attitudes and behaviors.”

To promote gender equity and inclusion throughout the DRC’s coffee sector, Kimberly explained that the project partners are implementing PGE’s approach on the ground in the DRC. For the driven group of ten producer organizations involved in this pilot project, this has been a year-long journey, and it does not finish with the conclusion of the project. With industry support, the work of these farmer organizations in their journey to greater gender equity is going to continue. Kimberly added, “they are enthusiastic, they are hardworking, and they also face many challenges.”

Kelly Amoroso from Allegro Coffee Company has been in the coffee business for over twenty years. Allegro has been buying coffee from the DRC since 2016, specifically with the Congolese cooperative Muungano. “It’s been a great journey; they’ve been a great partner and we’re really excited to see that they’re part of this gender equity program, ” she said.

The Journey

The project began its implementation in March 2020, when training videos were created in French and Swahili and shared with farmer organizations in the DRC through WhatsApp groups. In-person training on the ground was integrated alongside these videos to help the farmer organizations understand the five domains of a gender-equitable farmer organization.

Lucie Bahati, Perennial Crops Advisor with ELAN RDC said, “in these discussions, we saw how these organizations and cooperatives are really interested to implement these strategies and policies to make it more equitable and they are excited to have this connection with buyers who are interested in — and support — their efforts.” She added: “We can say that in a global way these trainings allowed us to have a larger vision of how women can have different responsibilities and jobs, and how they can be trained.”

After the training, the farmer organizations responded to an online assessment. This assessment was created in late 2019 and finalized in early 2020, with input from farmer organizations and industry partners. It offers a snapshot of where the farmer organizations are at the time of the assessment and provides a starting point to help them embark on a credible gender equity journey by offering recommendations of how they can improve. These recommendations lead to an action and investment plan with opportunities the industry can support directly through PGE’s Buyer-Supplier Alliance.

Bertin Bisimwa is a Gender and Youth Inclusion Specialist and part of the Feed the Future DRC Strengthening Value Chains Activity (SVC) team. “In South Kivu, the project approach led to immediate efforts by co-operatives with concrete results,” he said, adding that these results have included “setting up women’s committees or youth committees and increasing (by election or nomination) women in the decision-making bodies.”

According to Bisimwa, “The co-operatives organized several awareness sessions and shared the videos with other members. Compared to virtual training, even where the concept of women’s coffee already exists, it seems to us that with the PGE approach, we encourage families to work together.”

The Buyer-Supplier Alliance

During the May 2021 webinar, PGE introduced its Buyer-Supplier Alliance: a platform created to connect buyers with producer organizations who are on a credible gender equity journey. Each farmer organization has a profile on the Buyer-Supplier Alliance with a brief description of their organization, their coffee specifications, and a downloadable copy of their action plans created during their virtual learning journey.

The tool is a platform for industry buyers to access the action plans, allowing them to make informed purchase decisions, reward performance, and drive action and investment.

According to Amoroso, “[the Buyer-Supplier Alliance] allows us to look at what their action plan is and then it creates an opportunity for us to support that perhaps with a quality premium, a social premium, or adding something to make it more sustainable for them and to let them know that we want to support their efforts, that their business partner is supporting those efforts on the commercial side of things, to advance their gender equity programs.”

Kyle Tush, started as a roaster with Counter Culture Coffee, and now works in quality control. He has been engaged in the coffee sector for almost eight years. “A tool like this, to have a central place where that kind of market linkage piece comes together, is really valuable on both sides of the value stream,” he said, adding: “These are tools that ensure that most of that value is getting back to communities in a more impactful way. It is not just enough to pay high-end prices for coffee, but it’s about following that trail and how those prices are getting filtered back into communities.”

Susan Hellen Evenson is a trader and position analyst at Atlas Coffee Importers and has worked in the coffee sector for around twelve years. According to Evenson, “when we invest in women we’re really investing in communities and the women who take care of these communities. This model which feels so holistic, as a foundation for improving the strengths of cooperatives and for improving the economy of the cooperative.” She affirmed: “The [Buyer-Supplier Alliance] is a way for more voices to be heard and for more cooperatives to be seen in the work that they’re doing, whether they have started that journey or whether they have expressed an interest in starting, so that market access piece is so important.”

The future

Social change is a long-term process. PGE invites you to join the Buyer-Supplier Alliance to sustain the initial changes in promoting women and gender equity these farmer organizations have taken during their virtual learning journeys. Go check out their profiles and action plans of these ten organizations. If you are a buyer, seek samples of coffees and use these action plans to see where you might be interested in investing in this work. Additional profiles from farmer organizations are being added with a goal of one hundred profiles by the end of 2021.

We all have a role to play. Whether you are from the development sector, or another farmer organization, a roaster, a trader, we need to build together and to all get on this incredible journey towards gender equity so that we can really advance towards achieving SDG5 by 2030.

“I am convinced that we can do it and the Partnership for Gender Equity is your partner in helping to make that happen along with, of course, many farmer organizations around the world,” said Easson.

Watch the recording below from the May 5 webinar, the video is also available on PGE’s YouTube Channel in both English and French.

Access to the Buyer-Supplier Alliance is currently limited to buyers and can be found at https://equalorigins.org/the-buyer-supplier-alliance/

To learn more about PGE’s work in the DRC and around the world, follow us on social media @EqualOrigins.