A blend of social justice and gender balance

2 April 2019

Members of Sholi Cooperative. Photograph: Atlas Coffee

Women administered coffee trade cooperatives are driving Rwandan economy forward.

Coffee is always a good idea, not just to revive your senses on a Monday morning but also to reform a penurious nation into healthy communities capable of taking centre stage of global economic activities. Rwanda, an East African nation known as the land of a thousand hills’ is beginning to turn heads of world audience by producing coffee that meets the benchmarks of connoisseurs.

Rwanda is on the path of resurrection – politically, socially and economically- after heaving through the days of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi between April and June of 1994. The tragic massacre has left the nation in economic doldrums slumping to the seventh poorest country in the world in economic rankings in 2000. Twenty-five years since the tragedy, people of Rwanda are growing hopes of a better tomorrow as their coffee grows in brighter tropical farms.

While coffee became the cash-crop and focal point of the development of the country in the 2000s, the rapid progress in economic status is driven by its women. Breaking free from shackles of patriarchal society, women stepped forward from their backyards to the forefront of financial and social freedom by setting up cooperatives to cultivate, produce and sell coffee to the world. Currently there are around 270 such cooperatives in Rwanda.

Abateraninkunga Sholi, a coffee trade cooperative founded in 2008, initially formed from women’s associations in Rwanda. Female empowerment is a guiding principle and cultural foundation of the cooperative staying true to the meaning of Abateraninkung which is ‘mutual assistance.’ Aimable Nshimiye, managing director of the cooperative and a coffee farmer proudly says, “today, out of 386 members (of the cooperative), 157 are women.”

Their president, Jeanne d’Arc Mugorewishaka, is a ‘compelling’ spokesperson and advocate of female participation in coffee production and sale, in par with men. Having lived in isolation for many years as a society, she knew starting up a cooperative was the best step forward in helping women in her area, but it wasn’t easy. “Our husbands controlled the finances and it was even frowned upon for us to leave the house. It took many years and a lot of hard work and effort, but it was worth it” Nshimiye recalls his President’s words.

Jeanne d’Arc Mugorewishaka, President of Sholi Cooperative. Photograph: Atlas Coffee

The life of coffee farmers in Rwanda epitomises trade injustices towards vulnerable communities oblivious to their potential in a global market. Long before they realised the global market is not a level playing field, rather a market of international buyers pocketing high margins from coffee trade leaving farmers at grassroots level penniless. Often, buyers have failed to honour contracts, as a result their coffee was stranded leading to spoilage. A seasonal crop is coffee for which harvest lasts for only three months in a year – unavailability of buyers summoned disaster; the farmers would go empty handed until the next harvest.

The lives of Rwandan farmers are witnessing a positive change with the introduction of several fair trade projects. One includes a project called Coffee Market Building for People and Prosperity funded by the Scottish government in 2017 working with eight cooperatives in the country. Fair trade projects inevitably eliminate unscrupulous middle men who eat away a larger pie of profits coffee farmers deserve. It connects them with ethical international buyers and offers essential entrepreneurial training. The farmers are shown the ropes of coffee business to enjoy better incomes, and “it is changing our lives,” affirms Nshimiye.

Aimable Nshimiye at Glasgow Fair Trade Roadshow. Photograph: Sofia Santos

Nshimiye says: “Fair trade projects apart from producing certified speciality coffees have shown strong commitment in the region to encourage farmers adopt sustainable farming practices. Improper use of chemical fertilizers and inefficient use of water were some of the many concerns brought to the attention of coffee farmers. Also, special projects to install solar power to provide electricity at household levels have raised the standard of living. Such measures have largely been responsible for tackling the challenges of climate change they had to endure for years.”

Whilst the economic benefits of sustainable farming are visible and often deemed as low-hanging fruits of labour, the indirect social benefits the seasonal production of coffee offers to the well-being of individuals and their communities are perennial. Besides achieving business efficiencies and networking opportunities the fair-trade projects have eventually provided platforms for youth in the country to discuss and raise awareness on critical social dialogues such as teenage pregnancies, gender justice and equal participation.

Twin, one of the project partners of Scottish Fair Trade project released a case study on Women’s coffee bringing greater gender justice.’ They introduced Gender Action Learning Systems (GALS), a community led approach that works with men and women to achieve social, economic, and political transformation. It utilises interactive methods to draw out the activities of men and women in coffee farming families, their sources of income and channels of expenditure. It identifies the key decision maker at every touch point of economic activities in the family to recommend the most productive and collaborative ways to take life forward – a practice that ensures inclusion of women in decision making.

Gender Action Learning Systems (GALS) Framework. Infographic: Twin Trading

Dory McIntosh, accounts management director at Challenges Worldwide that runs the Scottish Fair Trade project in Rwanda said:

“Empowering woman is a central plank of the project as much as it is important to Fairtrade. Most of the projects have a large number of women and they are actively involved in the managing committees,” she says. Every cooperative aims to have at least fifty percent women representation on an average on the board of members.

Nshimiye said that building more schools for the younger generation to have access to quality education in the vicinity is a grand plan they envisage. Angelique Dusabimana, a coffee farmer and a member of Kopakaki cooperative, is also a full-time school teacher. She sets her eye on the future generation because “now all members can afford to send their children to school” – a luxury seemed beyond their imagination in the past. To overcome gender inequality, Kopakaki has established several small women’s farming groups and also trains its members for additional skills like basket making to earn an extra income. These cooperatives also lend to its members interest-free to pay for their children’s school fees.

Joseph Nzindukiyimana, a member of Buhanga cooperative is financially stable, today. His family even went on to adopt a boy from his village after his mother had died. “It made us so happy that finally we were in a position to give him a good home,” he delightedly stated while speaking to the fair trade partners.

Access to safe water, electricity, education facilities, and sleeping in secure brick houses as opposed to those made of sticks in a sustainable environment, and of course growing together as a community with a sense of belonging and promise of a beautiful tomorrow are, for people in Rwanda akin to living the dreams of their lives, only possible due to establishment of cooperatives and ethical business practices fair trades guarantee.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to quote ‘humanity runs on coffee’ because every cup of fair trade coffee you enjoy in Scotland leaves an unstained mark on Rwanda – a country rebuilding its economy on the foundations of gender equality fortified by social justice.

Infographic: Dheepu George

*Article amended 09/04/19 changing “ethnic genocide” to “the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi” and infographic altered to state “over 1 million” instead of “800,000”.

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