Female Coffee Farmers in Kenya Face Rough Treatment for the Bitter Brew

By Tabitha Nderitu, Womens Feature Service

The next time you take a sip of freshly-brewed Arabica coffee at a cafe near you, do spare a thought for the women who toil away in farms in faraway Kenya to make sure that you get to enjoy the aromatic brew.

According to the Kenyan Coffee Board, an estimated six million people are employed directly or indirectly in the coffee industry. And it’s mostly the women who tend to the plantations that dot the East African nation’s lush central highlands, one of the most fertile farming regions in the world. From picking to sorting and drying to processing and milling, they are involved every step of the way.

But while they do all the hard work they rarely harvest any benefits. From unfair land ownership rights – laws largely prevent women from inheriting land – to inadequate awareness of the workings of the industry, to the current economic slump that has affected the export business, the coffee trade is tough on the women.

Take Monica Njeri-Ndirangu, 58. Her problems began almost immediately after her husband passed away. “I did not imagine that one day I would have to fight for this piece of land,” says the distraught farmer, pointing towards her expansive 40-acre piece of arable land, located in Thika district, 40 kilometres northwest of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Ndirangu’s plantation has 6,000 coffee trees. She had to engage in an inheritance battle with her husband’s family, as her in-laws wanted the coffee farm to be given to a brother of her late husband.

Kenya’s current system of property and land access and ownership discriminates against women. Customary laws largely exclude women from inheriting, owning, and possessing land, including their matrimonial homes. Says Patrichia Nyakundi, a Nairobi advocate who specialises in Family law, “The rights to own, inherit, manage and dispose of property are under constant attack from customs, laws and individuals including government officials who believe that women cannot be trusted with, or do not deserve property.”

That’s the reason why, despite the Laws of Succession Act granting widows a life interest in their matrimonial home and property, the government has failed to adequately enforce this protection, especially in rural areas. Consequently, many widows along with their children end up in urban slums.

Thankfully for Ndirangu, who is now a single parent bringing up seven children, some quick thinking on her part saw the quashing of the land grab bid by her husband’s family. The local magistrate’s court ruled in her favour.

But getting her plantation back was just the beginning of her problems. Like the hundreds of women who are involved in coffee farming, she had no idea how the business worked or for that matter where her husband had invested the money earned from the farm. “Despite the fact that I, including my children, did all the farming, I could not tell where the local marketing cooperative used to sell our product,” says Ndirangu, who has never been to school.

Slowly, with assistance from her children and some well wishers, she not only managed to trace all her late husband’s bank accounts but also learnt about the markets where her coffee was auctioned.

Ndirangu’s tribulations encrypt the routine experiences of women coffee farmers in rural Kenya. Most of them are ignorant about the workings of the trade. The majority of Kenya’s coffee is grown on small farms organised into co-ops. According to the Coffee Board of Kenya, as of 2005, there were 700,000 smallholders organised into nearly 600 co-ops, and nearly 3,300 estates measuring anything between two to 20 hectares each. The coffee is produced and marketed under a government-controlled auction system – samples are available to bidders prior to the weekly auction, and the highest bidder gets the lot.

But in Kenya farming is not a woman-friendly sector. The men control the land and investments, government training programmes are designed for male farmers; and even low interest agriculture loans are made available largely to men even though, just as in all developing countries, it’s the women who do much of the work on farms – from planting to harvesting and processing. The cooperatives that supply to the auctions are also male dominated, so when a woman brings in the harvest, she is given a small receipt announcing the sum transferred into her husband’s account.

Another factor that has hit women farmers hard is the global financial crisis. The once-flourishing coffee industry is slowing declining. A severe economic slump in the European Union, traditionally Kenya’s biggest market, has greatly affected sales. Figures from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) show that the quantity of coffee exports decreased to 2,935 metric tonnes by December 2009, from a high of 7,252.1 metric tonnes earlier in May of the same year.

In times of tough competition in the international coffee market, the government has tried to step in with some reforms. Not only has the Ministry of Co-operative Development and Marketing facilitated cooperatives to access markets in the Far East and South East Asia, the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM), the country’s top tertiary college, has also developed the Organizational Performance Index (OPI) to help exporters upgrade their produce and keep up with international best practices. “The OPI has been developed for African organisations to enable them to compete and win at a global level,” reveals David Muturi, KIM’s Chief Executive Officer.

Fortunately women farmers like Ndirangu, who are otherwise dependent on third parties to get their coffee exported, have never faced a problem selling their produce as its quality is assured. But urgent reforms are needed to ensure that women farmers, and in particular, women coffee growers, can improve their lot. After all, it is a well recognized fact that women’s contributions in agriculture not only increase crop yields, but also alleviate hunger and improve the nutrition of entire families.

A step in this direction was taken recently when financial institutions and civil society organisations spearheaded a campaign to ensure the provision of credit on easy terms exclusively for women involved in business enterprise.

But according to Prof. Ruth Oniang’o, a former legislator and now Executive Director of Kenya’s Rural Outreach Project (KROP), a local NGO that works to better the lives of women farmers, a great deal still remains to be done to create a general sense of equity for women in farming.

“The cultural set-up in rural areas engenders sexist attitudes. Despite the fact that Kenyan women overwhelmingly feed the nation they continue to live in the shadows. Indeed, the U.N. led Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says women in Africa produce 80 per cent of the total food but ironically the proceeds all end up in the hands of men.”

Things are no different for women coffee growers, for whom the coffee experience is indeed a very bitter brew.