A Woman’s Work: Initiatives to Fund Gender Equity In Nicaragua

A Woman’s Work: Initiatives to Fund Gender Equity In Nicaragua

This work was originally written by Lauren Taber in 2018, and has been edited and repurposed for distribution in 2022 by Ashley Fleming. The images and photos below were captured by Rosa Angelica Sarabia and Antonio Sarabia during their visit to member cooperative La Union Regional in Huatusco, Mexico in summer 2021. Although the program initiative discussed in this piece focuses on the gender equity programs in Nicaragua, the concept of women's unpaid labor is applicable to all regions of the world including the women seen here in Mexico. Through ownership and programs as those discussed below, Pachamama Coffee is working to bring equity, sustainability and empowerment to all coffee communities. 

                                                                                                                                    

Seattle, WA | Flashback to 2018, at the annual board meeting in April, Pachamama Coffee’s Board of Directors (composed of representatives from each cooperative at origin) approved a motion to pay a premium on coffee from Nicaragua imported via our long-time partner Etico. The 10 cent per pound premium was developed by Etico with one express purpose: recognize the work that women in farming communities undertake that traditionally goes unpaid, and compensate them for it. 

When thinking of agricultural work, some arresting images may come to mind. Farmers and agricultural workers rise with the sun to carry out full days of manual labor, with a limited evening break only to repeat the process the next day. This intense lifestyle can be made worth it, however, if a fair wage is earned by the farmer for their product. There is a price tag attached to their labor, so the end justifies the means. 

But what about the work undertaken that doesn’t necessarily produce something that can be sold?

In rural communities of developing countries, the female heads of households have responsibilities beyond the purview of agricultural labor. These responsibilities are activities traditionally considered to be “women’s work”: household chores, meal preparation, childcare. While necessary for the overall functioning of the farm, these duties are added onto the expectation that they participate in farming activities as well. This domestic labor is unpaid and disproportionately carried out by women, making it a significant barrier to their economic and social mobility. After carrying out their uncompensated responsibilities, women in rural communities do not have time to hold paying jobs, get an advanced education, or participate in public life in a meaningful way.  This is not a new or hidden phenomenon - women’s unpaid labor has been the subject of various academic studies and is a key tenet of development initiatives such as those being carried out by the United Nations.

Woman smiling with her daughter, coffee farming mexico

woman and daughter in kitchen, farming community Mexico

“[This] is a big issue in European feminism,” explains Etico founder and CEO Nick Hoskyns. “It’s sort of cutting edge.” 

Hoskyns, whose aunt is a leading academic feminist in Europe and has worked on the issue throughout her career, says that the idea for developing the premium stemmed out of a frustration with the status quo. Societies should begin to question what a person should be expected to give and receive (or, not receive) just because of their gender. 

“In Europe, what they felt they had achieved was equal opportunity, and equal pay for equal work legally,” he reveals, 

“But what they felt they had never really achieved was economic recognition for the role that women play in the family, community, and often in production.”

This role, and the lack of formal representation of it, is particularly pronounced in the agricultural sector of developing countries. The female head of household, or whomever carries out duties traditionally associated with the wife/mother archetype, (as Hoskyns would hasten to note, “We’re not talking only about women...when you get down to the complexities of it it’s more about the gender female role”), has responsibilities that extend beyond the maintenance of the family business. They are tasked with preparing 3 meals a day for the family and hired laborers, household maintenance, and of course, the many duties involved in the job of childcare. All of this is added on to the full time stint of helping with crop cultivation - they are active participants in the laborious aspects of the farming. 

Women in kitchen making torillas, Huatusco, Mexico

woman making tortillas, huatusco, mexico

hand making tortillas

This latter work, of course, is compensated: they are able to sell what they are producing. Their contribution to the economy is tangible, it is recorded. But, as Hoskyns quips, “GDP doesn’t measure how well children are brought up”. This means that a significant portion of productive labor undertaken by individuals is not only unrecognized, but completely unaccounted for in any formal way, despite the positive ripple effects it has on the economy. In fact, by one UN estimate, $10 trillion of output per year is a result of uncompensated labor carried out by women. 

The Etico team knew that tangible changes needed to be undertaken to begin the process of a paradigm shift. In short, the price paid for a commodity needed to reflect the amount of work done to produce it. With this in mind, they set out to determine the cost of the unpaid contributions of (mostly) women. 

They began by doing research with their partners in the sesame industry. By doing time-use surveys over a 12 day cycle, they were able to determine the hours spent by sesame farmers doing indirect work. That is, carrying out those productive activities that don’t directly influence the crop yield but are essential to the survival of the farm. After the data from time use surveys was compiled and analyzed, Etico’s gender consultant was able to determine that these types of activities accounted for nearly 21% of the total labor that went into production of sesame oil. This first study was done in partnership with Etico’s main sesame trading partner, The Body Shop. After being provided with the results of the study, The Body Shop agreed to pay a per pound premium on the sesame they import.     

The initiative undertaken by Eitco and The Body Shop was the first time that accounting for indirect labor was formally incorporated into a company’s supply chain. 

After this successful inaugural run, Etico decided to translate their work into the world of coffee. To do this, they partnered with a leader in the realm of improving social infrastructure for coffee producers: PRODECOOP in Nicaragua

While a similar time use survey was not possible for the coffee initiative, Hoskyns leveraged his knowledge of the coffee industry in determining how the previously unpaid labor could be compensated. 

“Because of the Fair Trade model, it was pretty obvious that [coffee buyers] would be willing to pay a premium of 10 cents per pound,” Hoskyns explains, drawing on the established organizational framework, which sees a bonus of 10 cents per pound added to the price of green coffee purchased. The proceeds accumulated are then put into a fund that is used to carry out a variety of projects and initiatives, depending on the region and sector.  

Building on an established structure made good sense, but there was hesitation around following the Fair Trade schema too closely. In wrestling with the question of how the money would find its way to the women who earned it, some at Etico pushed to eschew the idea of a fund for community-driven initiatives. 

mother and son in huatusco mexico

Small Scale coffee farmers - Huatusco, Mexico

Two children of coffee farmers in huatusco mexico

“Our Gender Consultant wanted to calculate the earnings and make sure the money got directly into [the women’s] pockets, but there was some push back from the cooperatives,” says Hoskyns. This is because ultimately, it is not just the female farmers who are engaging in unrecognized work, but all of the women in the community. If resources are given to one woman only, the final goal of creating local infrastructure for empowerment would not be achieved. 

“We believe that empowerment comes from strong organization, and that the cooperative structure is a good avenue for this organization,” says Hoskyns, revealing a touch of his track record for firebrand support of producer cooperatives across the agricultural sectors of the developing world. 

Grounded in a twofold belief in the strength of the cooperative model and the importance of partnership rather than charity, PRODECOOP has taken the lead in developing initiatives that will be funded by the premium paid by Pachamama. The democratic structure of PRODECOOP has female leadership at every level, which left no room for doubt that the cooperative would come up with unique and meaningful projects aligned with the vision of the overall program.

two women hugging in front of home, huatusco mexico

In fact, another producer cooperative local to the highlands of Nicaragua experienced marked success in their undertaking of a similar venture. The farmers of SOPPEXCA, whose facilities are located in Jinotega, just southwest of PRODECOOP’s Palacaguina headquarters, dedicated funds for a women’s empowerment project several years ago. SOPPEXCA’s leadership chose to use the resources to organize the women who work at the co-op’s beneficio - the processing facility where green coffee is washed, dried, and prepared for export. The work is labor intensive and requires a keen eye for the coffee’s development. 

“No one was looking out for them,” says Hoskyns of the women tasked with keeping the beneficio operational. Due to the limited organizational capacity of the workers, empowerment in the workplace was not entirely possible. The job had high turn around, with individuals often leaving after less than one year. 

“Five years down the road, they’ve had great success. There’s much less job turn over, all because it was up to the co-op to decide what was necessary,” Hoskyns intones, leading into an explanation of the deep optimism he feels for the potential that PRODECOOP possesses. 

“I don’t have any hesitation to say ‘My god, someone like Merling Preza could come up with some great ideas and work with the communities in a participatory way to come up with some great projects’,” he explains. Merling Preza, it should be noted, is the General Manager of PRODECOOP and a lifelong advocate for the rights of coffee farmers across Latin America, and also serves as the President of Pachamama’s Board of Directors. 

Merling Preza, PRODECOOP General Manager and Pachamama President of the Board

To date (2018 when the original piece was written), PRODECOOP has chosen to use the premium for training programs in the Achuapa community. Training programs of various types ranging from agricultural technical training to health initiatives are open to all women in the community, not just members of the cooperative. In this way, all women are invited to join together to improve their sense of self-efficacy, and it also serves to encourage new membership into the cooperative. 

It is unusual to allow cooperatives and communities to develop their own projects and initiatives - a phenomenon that does not exist even within the Fair Trade framework, whose projects are prescriptive in nature.  But, there is no reason to believe that farming communities will not act in the best interest of their own development. 

“This is all coming from a place of trust,” concludes Hoskyns. “We trust and believe in the cooperatives. If we don’t trust them we wouldn’t be working with them.” 


                                                                                                                                    

Now in 2022, we continue to look at this program and know the decision to put power into the hands of farmers was the right one. Cooperative leaders continue to act in the best interest of their communities and their people. Like Nick said, “It is unusual to allow cooperatives and communities to develop their own projects and initiatives.” It is also unusual for farmers to have ownership of the coffee supply chain and power in the Board Room but we know this is the most effective and beneficial move to build real equity and empowerment at origin. We know we still have a lot of work to do but this is still only the beginning.

Producers and cooperatives have on the ground working knowledge of their day to day lives and know what they need to do to help themselves and their communities. It should not be uncommon practice and we hope the results of initiatives like this will allow others in the coffee community, and development community, to see how effective they can be.

At Pachamama we have a very close working relationship with Alexa Marin, one of the very women who runs the programs that this initiative helps fund.  We’ll be talking with her later this month about her role at PRODECOOP to help implement gender equity initiatives, women's health programs and more. This conversation with Alexa can help demonstrate to others how successful these programs can be.

Alexa Marin of PRODECOOP in Nicaragua stands in front of a womens health clinic

Alexa works hard as a farm owner, as a cooperative leader and as a mother and grandmother. Earlier this year, Alexa was named finalist in the coffee publication Sprudge’s annual awards for Notable Coffee Producer of the Year for her work at the cooperative. Alexa also shared with us a first hand account about COVID-19, climate change and economic struggles for coffee farmers in Nicaragua that you can read here

                                                                                                                                    

Pictured in order of appearance:

Cover Photo: Selsa del Carmen Rincon standing proud in her kitchen

Mother and child: Selsa del Carmen Rincon

In the kitchen: Josefina Garcia and Selsa del Carmen Rincon

Making tortillas (L to R): Marcela victoriano, Ericka Cortes, Lucrecia Garcia

With their families: Karina Reyes Albiter and son ,Miguelina Luna Axol and familyJosefina Garcia and son

Hugging: Selsa del Carmern Rincon and Rosa Angelica Sarabia (Creative Director, Pachamama Coffee)

Merling Preza, Pachamama President, PRODECOOP GM

Alexa Marin in front of PRODECOOP women's health clinic


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