Friday, May 25, 2018

84. Ten Years Later - ITC's Report on Gender and Coffee, Still A Rallying Cry

May 25, 2018
Photo Credit; Artisan Coffee Imports
Readers may have heard the quote, "there are three types of lies -- lies, damn lies, and statistics.” (Benjamin Disraeli) Or another favorite of mine, "facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” (Mark Twain). Readers concerned with the topic of gender equity and the coffee value chain would be wise to keep these true-isms in mind as they read and view the various reports, articles and other media on the topic. In 2008 - 2009, the International Trade Center (ITC) of the United Nations, set up a bold effort with a partner, the East African Fine Coffee Association (EAFCA), (now called the Africa Fine Coffee Association or AFCA), to try to put a "statistical" stake in the ground on women in coffee in East Africa. Jointly, they decided to find out what was already known or could be estimated easily about three important key issues, and several related issues:
                    1. women's participation in growing and harvesting coffee, and
                    2. women's ownership of the land where they work
                    3. women's participation in the work of selling coffee on domestic or international markets.

The resulting reports from this effort were written by an amazing leader at ITC at the time, Martin Scholer, Senior Market Development Adviser. [1] The ITC's publication International Trade Forum newsletter, Issue 3&4 from 2008, focused on "Women & Trade: Gender Equality & Empowering Women." [2] The report shared two equally important results:
1. Confirmed Need for Research.
"There is very little information and next to no hard data available on the role of women in the coffee sector in coffee producing countries." 
In other words, shockingly little is known about the role of women in coffee, even in countries with decades long histories of trading the valuable commodity. The interviews with 25 people (mostly women) from 15 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America could only confirm that women's roles are diverse and difficult to summarize.
"women's role in the workforce varies significantly, from one country to another or even within the same country."
The above two quotes, in this author's opinion, are the most important findings of the research. They constitute a rallying cry to the coffee industry, which is searching for ways to battle climate change, leaf rust and an aging farmer population. Shifting coffee onto a more sustainable track for the future will require revisions to industry structures to provide for this vitally important stakeholder group - the women.

2. Statistics. Unfortunately, the second of the two key findings from the project is a handful of estimated statistics, which repeatedly get more attention, and are typically badly summarized, such that the essential, ground-breaking message of the original report (point 1 above) is completely lost.

Tables 1 and 2 of the report share the entire set of statistics in the report.

Notable about this passage:
  • The authors wanted to validate a widely-held belief from almost anyone who has visited coffee-producing regions for any length of time. On such visits, one sees that women do a lot of the field work and harvesting, and yet it is typically males who collect payment for coffee. The resulting investment of those revenues appears to be mis-aligned with the goal to improve the household income.Their interviews with 25 people apparently confirmed that these impressions could be confirmed with further research. The prevailing assumptions were not dis-proven.
  • It is a very basic report. These two tables and two brief paragraphs are the entire description of the results and outcomes of the 25-person, 15 country survey.  There is no detail of the methods, questionnaire or further insights from the surveys. There is no appendix with further breakdowns of the categories. 
  • The tables do not claim to have found an "average" statistic for any of the indicators. The authors seem to have been careful to avoid mis-using that mathematical term.  They understood that a handful of estimates does not constitute a valid average. They added the "variations" column, which shows the vast differences in responses, and they use the term "typical" for the last (right-hand) column. The authors clearly wanted to share a guideline of what one might expect to find, (if and when credible data is collected) without using terms improperly or pretending to have measured a statistical average.
The Opposite of the Intended Effect
We must continue to be thankful that Scholer, the ITC and EAFCA (now AFCA) were clear in their intention to achieve validation of our beliefs, but unfortunately what has happened is probably the opposite of what the authors thought this report would achieve in terms of next steps. Instead of hearing the "rallying cry" that "we have no data", and inspiring a wave of investment into institutions capable of conducting research on the topic, nearly the opposite has happened. Not one additional report has been published by either the ITC, nor AFCA (EAFCA's successor) to fill the gap identified in 2008. Nor have any other international coffee organizations like the International Coffee Organization, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) or the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) found the resources to at least regionally sponsor credible primary research, analysis and publication of results on the three indicators mentioned at the start of this blog.

Instead, one repeatedly sees the numbers labeled as "typical" in this report, turning up again and again as "statistics" to support other projects related to gender and coffee. Even the ITC badly summarizes these results in its own publications, for example this 2011 newsletter about International Women's Day states, "currently in the African coffee industry, women do 70% of the field work and harvesting, but are only engaged in 10% of the in-country and international trade of the product." There is no mention in the entire newsletter of the "gender data gap" in coffee and the 70% "typical" number for three huge continents (Africa, Asia and Latin America) has here been in-correctly attributed to African countries only.

The illusion that "we've measured the extent of the problem" continues to be propagated today by groups like SCA when they promote the Program for Gender Equity (PGE) in their recent newsletter sharing an on-line video and white paper from PGE. Both of these media tools badly summarize the numbers from Tables 1 and 2. Unable to resist the temptation to oversimplify, they state "women comprise 70% of the agricultural-workforce in coffee-producing countries", call this number an "average" (in the white paper), and never say that these numbers are far from facts, nor do they mention the report that issued them clearly calls for more and better research.

IWCA Research Alliance Heeds the Call
The IWCA, a partner mentioned often by the ITC back in 2008 and since, has made some small steps in the direction Scholer and other authors might have expected. They created a Research Alliance, chaired by the author of this blog (full disclosure) which is a network of women in research in coffee producing countries that comes together to support each other, and support projects to eliminate the gender data gap. The Alliance has two main achievements to date. The first relates directly to the ITC's report. A project to collect estimates of the population of female coffee producers in each of the 20 producing countries that have IWCA chapters has so far collected and published estimates from seven countries:

Sources: see list at the bottom of this blog.

The second achievement of the Research Alliance is the publication of an e-book by the IWCA chapter in Brazil, the group's largest chapter. The chapter leaders and members in Brazil were shocked and disappointed by reports and articles, including the ITC report discussed here, that state, "there is a very low percentage of women in fieldwork and harvest in Brazil, farming there is highly mechanized." The women of Brazil's coffee industry are confident this is not the case, and the effort to share the important contributions of Brazil's women to its coffee sector was achieved by this e-book, published in December 2017, by an impressive, coordinated effort by over 40 researchers from 11 institutions across the country.

Read about both of these achievements in a July 2017 blogpost of the National Coffee Alliance (NCA).

At the IWCA's August 2017 convention in Puebla, Mexico, the work of the Research Alliance was presented, as well as excerpts from Brazil's e-book, alongside research from 2016 from Rwanda (and the Feed the Future Africa Great Lakes Coffee Support Program) and recent learnings from the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros in Colombia.

Also, this March 2018 report, written by Tanya Newton for the Perfect Daily Grind, is an example of how the ITC's work can be accurately shared, with an appropriate comment about the age of the report and the need for more credible data to guide the coffee industry.

Ten year's down the road, we can safely say that the ITC's 2008 report was a watershed moment bringing attention to the issues of women in coffee. Unfortunately, the core message of the report has too often been missed. The purpose of this blog has been to clarify for future writers on the topic the need for credible data on female contributions in coffee. It is just as dire and needed today as it was 10 years ago. And this quote from the ITC's Patricia Francis, Executive Director in 2008, also remains true:
"without women, trade generates dollars, but not balanced development." (ITC, International Trade Forum, Issue 3&4, pg. 3)

Sources for IWCA Research Alliance Table 1 above: 2013 estimates from Instituto del Cafe de Costa Rica (ICAFE) in Costa Rica; 2013 estimates from the Consejo in El Salvador; 2016/2017 estimates from Anacafe (Guatemala); 2013 report from the Instituto Hondurevo del Caf√© (ICAFE) Registro Nacional de Productores; Recensement General des Cafeiers Edition 2006-2007, from Institute de Statistiques Et D’Etudes Economiques du Burundi, (ISTEEBU); 2015 Coffee Census published by Rwanda's National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), released May 2016; Federaci√≥n Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC).

[1] Mr. Scholer was Senior Market Development Adviser at ITC and he was on the forefront of bringing women in coffee "into view" in that organization. Scholer understood how valuable coffee was to the East African region and further saw the unmet potential created by the lack of agency for the women involved in the coffee trade. Furthermore, he had the insights, connections and resources to start moving the dial on this topic. He fostered a relationship with the International Women's Coffee Alliance (IWCA), which greatly helped advance the creation of new chapters for Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  I do not know to what extent the idea for this research project was his, but he was instrumental in carrying it out and publishing the results.
[2] Next, ITC and EAFCA jointly published a 2009 report of the same data and analysis, which seems to no longer be available on-line.