Israeli coffee firm bets on women farmers in developing nations

TEL AVIV/TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - From the sparsely populated mountains of Honduras to an island on Congo’s Lake Kivu, women - many of them victims of domestic violence - have united to provide for their families by growing coffee.

A woman associate of the Cooperative of Rural Women of La Paz (COMUCAP), shows coffee beans in Cabanas, Honduras March 6, 2017. REUTERS Jorge Cabrera

Now some collectives are getting help from an Israeli food company that sees the women’s high productivity, greater than that of their male counterparts, as a means to bolster their income and family security while underpinning business.

Globally, women do 70 percent of the fieldwork on coffee farms but own only 15 percent of the land and traded beans.

Strauss Group, the world’s fifth-largest buyer of green coffee, is trying to help change that by buying directly from and investing in women growers’ associations in developing countries, enabling them to produce better quality beans.

Other companies have training programs for farmers in developing countries. In Ethiopia, Nestle provides training in agronomy and farm management to foster gender equality in coffee farming. Coffee importer Sustainable Harvest has partnered in a program to train women farmers in Rwanda.

In Honduras, Strauss is working with COMUCAP, a women’s cooperative in the La Paz region.

“I had nothing,” said COMUCAP President Suyapa Garcia, a victim of domestic violence, referring to the time before she joined the cooperative. “That was the biggest problem the women of COMUCAP had. We depended on our husbands, we had nothing, only our children.”

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In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Strauss plans to buy its first container this year, it has engaged with the Rebuilding Women’s Hope (RWH) association on Idjwi island in Lake Kivu. RWH works with 1,700 women on the island, which has no running water, electricity or paved roads.

The company provides equipment and financial support to train farmers in collaboration with coffee exporter Coffeelac and consulting firm SHIFT Social Impact Solutions.

“My life has changed so much,” said Furaha M’Bizimungu, a widowed mother of seven. She said that since bringing her coffee to RWH last year, she has been guaranteed a fair price after having “encountered many of the problems that women face: theft, harassment, fraud”.

M’Bizimungu has earned enough money to buy a sewing machine that will enable her to provide extra income for her family.

“The goal of this project ... is to rebuild the hope of women who had once been lost,” said RWH founder Marceline Budza.

In Honduras, Strauss has just bought its second container of washed Arabica to be sold in Israel and Europe.

COMUCAP expects to increase sales to Strauss, whose coffee division had sales of some $600 million in the first nine months of 2016, by two containers annually to reach 12 per crop. A container of 20 tonnes of coffee costs $70,000-$100,000.

Another project is underway in Vietnam with two or three more planned by year end, eventually reaching 10 to 15. Strauss is in discussions with growers in El Salvador, Colombia and Uganda.

“We are talking about households who have annual income of $500-$1,000,” said Amir Levin, Strauss Coffee’s chief operating officer.

In fields where women do most of the work, studies have shown a 20-30 percent yield improvement, he said.

Additional reporting by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City; editing by Susan Thomas