The farmers and business women of Kopakama, Rwanda

Posted by Nilufar Verjee on 11 March 2014


I recently had the privilege of visiting women coffee farmers in Rwanda, a beautiful country known by its inhabitants as the Land of a Thousand Hills. I made the three hour undulating car journey westwards from Kigali, through lush mountains, towards the fertile region around Lake Kivu where the co-operative Kopakama is located.

Last year, we published Empowering Women Farmers in Agricultural Value Chains, which described the efforts of women to grow and trade their own coffee in order to earn an independent income. The report reveals that in some origins women do 70% of the work in the coffee supply chain, and yet only 15% of the coffee grown is sold in their name. I was keen to learn about their project first-hand.

I met with fifteen members of Kopakama’s Women’s Association, dressed in their vibrantly-coloured ‘Sunday Best’ having been to church that morning. They hesitantly described the challenges they faced following the genocide – many of them were left widowed and therefore became coffee farmers by default, with no knowledge of how to maintain the coffee fields which were their only source of potential income. With the support of the co-operative they created a Women’s Association named Ejo Heza (meaning ‘Better Tomorrow’) as a way of providing training in farming techniques. The co-operative also purchased a communal field to enable women without land of their own to make decisions about their own crops.

The benefits they described to me included financial independence, the discipline of saving, and the opportunity to learn from each other. Bernadette Noukantagona, the former Chair of the Women’s Association explained, “I have learned how to save. Before, when I got paid for my coffee, I spent it on whatever I needed at the time. I’ve managed to save enough to buy my own field. And now I have a plan for the future.”

As they spoke, what struck me is that they are not only coffee farmers, but also business women like me. They’re juggling budgets, watching their costs, spending and saving prudently and planning ahead to grow their incomes, whilst all the time trying to improve their capabilities and develop expertise in what they do. They’re just as much part of the business world – or should be – as any other supplier.       

Eurelie Mukamtabana, a mother of five who owns 200 trees, highlighted the benefits of sharing information and improving their farming techniques. “It would be good to receive training about the markets where coffee is drunk”, she requested, “to understand the quality requirements of consumers so we can grow a better coffee that they will want to buy.” She had hit upon the importance to businesses of investing in women coffee farmers as it is these women whose work most affects the quality of the coffee. For example, harvesting beans when they are perfectly ripe, transporting them to the washing station (carried in baskets on their heads across those beautiful but incredibly steep hills), hand-sorting each bean to prevent defects in early-morning espressos many miles away: these are all tasks done by women.

The challenges these women face are significantly greater than most business women face, notably gaining access to the international trading market. Nonetheless, the women I met plan to increase the volumes they sell from future harvests.

One opportunity to open their access to the high street is Sainsbury’s, working in partnership with coffee roasters Finlays and Twin. This year’s International Women’s Day marked an exciting milestone, as Sainsbury’s launched the Kopakama Ejo Heza Fairtrade Ground Coffee – the first, fully traceable coffee grown by women to be sold in a mainstream supermarket.

I wondered how the women view coffee farming and whether their daughters are likely to continue their work. “I am very positive about the future of coffee farming here”, replied Bernadette. “My daughter would be very happy to be a coffee farmer. She can see that it is our coffee which is earning our living for us and she knows it would earn her an income.”  Once more, a perfect articulation of the business case: to invest in women coffee farmers is to invest in the future of the coffee supply chain.