Gender issues in Rwanda's tea and coffee export sectors


This research was carried out to explore and analyse gender issues in the structure of the sector, constraints to access and benefits, with the aim of informing policy and feeding into plans for future phases of work. The findings add to overwhelming evidence from around the world that a number of factors, including domestic duties and household gender relations, mean that women get less benefit from their work in the sector. The learning fed into strategy recommendations, including a renewed focus on training.

Download the final research report "Gender and youth in the tea and coffee value chains":



In Rwanda, IFAD supports the 'smallholder cash and export crop development project' (PDCRE) with a focus on the tea and coffee value chains. The project objectives include to ‘facilitate the participation of poor women head of household in the coffee and tea development activities’. In early 2010, a team of researchers visited Rwanda to study the gender implications of supporting the tea and coffee export sectors, with the aim of informing policy and planning. The team met people involved at different levels of the value chain, and visited cooperatives, processing plants and plantations across the country. They also met people not involved in the sectors in order to assess whether they would like to be involved and analyse constraints to entry. They describe some of the gender differences and issues found in the sectors in Rwanda, and make some recommendations for the future of PDCRE. In particular, they recommend that some of the concrete activities which mainstreamed gender and women's empowerment in the design of the programme be revisited and strengthened, and that extension and capacity building activities be reviewed to better meet the needs and constraints of women.

rwanda_tea_and_coffee_processing.jpgTea, coffee and livelihoods in Rwanda:

In Rwanda, population growth and reliance on agriculture and subsistence farming have meant that landholdings are mostly very small. Farming is the main activity for 87% of male and 95% of female household heads, making access to land a crucial livelihood issue. Traditionally, men inherited a small section of their parents' land on marriage, but new laws have prohibited the division of lands under 1ha, and access to land is becoming an ever more pressing issue for young people and women. The poorest families are those who rely on casual agricultural work, without access to land for subsistence or cash crops. Many landless people living close to tea plantations or coffee growing fields find seasonal employment in the plucking and harvesting seasons, the majority of these women.

Coffee has been grown in Rwanda since the early 20th Century, and is mostly grown by smallholders either privately or in cooperatives. Once harvested, coffee is usually taken to washing stations which are open for around 4 months of the year and provide important seasonal employment opportunities for casual workers. Tea has been grown since the 1960s and is dominated by large plantations located around large scale tea processing factories. There is a small contribution from smallholder tea growers, and the sector also provides employment to around 200,000 people.

Gender division of labour in tea and coffee production:

The research found that women play a major role in both tea and coffee production, though a much smaller role in the marketing of these products.

Rwanda has experienced a transformation of gender roles in households and labour relations since the genocide, which resulted in a very high proportion of households without adult men, meaning that women have taken over many tasks previously considered the male preserve. This has been supported by policies which promote gender equality. However, while a side effect of the genocide has been to reduce differences in gender distribution of tasks, strong differences remain, for example in the amount of time spent on cultivation and overall working time.
The research found that women spend a lot more time in crop husbandry than men, and male headed households own on average more trees than those headed by women (on average 194 trees compared to 139 trees for female producers). The gender division of labour in coffee and tea production includes:
  • In coffee producing smallholdings: planting, shaping and pruning are largely done by men, and weeding and harvesting by women, while digging, mulching, dealing with pests and diseases are shared tasks. Women tend to spend more time in the fields, and men usually have greater access to extension advice and have a higher level of skills. At coffee washing stations, men are usually found carrying and weighing while women mostly do the sorting jobs.
  • In tea production: men are responsible for planting and pruning, while weeding and plucking is mostly done by women who make up around 60% of the casual picking staff on plantations. The majority of full time staff, including supervisors and transporters, are men. Field work in tea plantations is supervised by 'capitas', effectively foremen. Of 75 such posts, only 6 are women, giving a ratio of 9% women. Equally, of 111 extension workers, only 5 (4.5%) are women.

The main difference between men and women's roles in agriculture, including tea and coffee, is the amount of time spent in the fields. Women mostly leave home early and work all morning, return to prepare food for lunch, then work again in the fields until sunset making an average 8 hours per day working in the fields. Men usually work half of the day in the fields, and work on other activities including marketing in the afternoon. What's more, women continue to have complete responsibility for domestic tasks, meaning that their working day is far longer than men's and they have little time to develop new skills or interests.

The research highlighted several issues affecting women's ability to earn an income from coffee and tea cultivation. These include:
  • The widely held belief that household holdings in trees and other assets (especially land) belong to men, a belief which persists despite the new legislation
  • The fact that they do not own trees on the household holdings;
  • inadequate access to credit due to the demands for collateral from banks and the still unclear situation of micro-finance institutions
  • Insufficient access to extension and advisory services
  • Heavy burden of domestic work
  • Lack of control over household income for married women even though they carry out most of the work

Household incomes and expenditure decisions:

On the whole, the research found that women earn less than men in the tea and coffee sectors. Tea pluckers earn by the kilo of leaves plucked, and men tend to pick larger quantities, either because they are closer to the weighing station or because they are able to pick faster. The research found in one location men plucked an average of 31kg per day, compared to 22kg by women. Add to that the predominance of men in the higher paid and more stable positions, and the tendency for men to own the trees except in female headed households, and the imbalance in earnings grows. Pickers, who are usually women, earn by the kilo averaging 500F per day, while supervisors earn 800F per day and are mostly men.
In coffee washing stations, women sorters tend to earn around 500F per day, while men working on transport and weighing are on piece rates which tend to give them an income of around 700F.

The research clearly found that men tend to control the marketing and sale of the product, even when women have participated greatly in the production. While female heads of household may own their own trees, and control the marketing and use of the income, this decision making power does not extend to women within headed households. The researchers found, for example, that while women may take the coffee to the washing station several days per week, it is nearly always the man who takes it on the days when payments are made, and the man of the household usually controls the income from these cash crops. Furthermore, in male headed households the lands and trees are usually in the man's name, meaning that he is the legitimate member of any cooperative and more likely to receive technical and financial assistance.

Though most people interviewed felt that women should be equal participants in household expenditure decisions, in reality most women told the researchers that they had to hand over the cash they earned to their husbands who then allocated some of the money for household needs and kept the rest for their own use. Women have limited authority over the use of the money they earn except in female headed households where they are able to set their own priorities for spending.

Strategies to benefit women:

The research only found one notable example of an effort to address gender inequalities in coffee production: the women's coffee initiative of the Abakundakawa cooperative in Rushashi. The initiative involves women picking coffee at the optimum moment and taking it immediately to the coffee washing station where it is processed separately and immediately, producing better quality coffee. This demands considerable additional labour for the women invoved both in terms of effort and timing of the work. Yet to date the women involved have only received a marginal increase in income, not commensurate with either their additional labour or the higher selling price of this quality coffee. The actual additional income (about USD3 per kilo) has gone to the cooperative, although measures have been taken to address this situation, paying the additional income into a separate bank account managed by the women's association, and the scheme is now being rolled out to other PDCRE cooperatives.

The researchers conclude that a major strategy for gender mainstreaming and women's empowerment in the tea and coffee sectors should be training.Training needs to be restructured to focus on gender issues as well as technical ones and be addressed to field staff, not only senior management.Gender sensitisation training should be provided for animateurs and animatrices (extensionists) during the project to encourage male household heads to allow women greater access to and control over the income generated by their work in tea and coffee cultivation. Male and female producers could be trained by the animateurs/trices using a variety of communication techniques, including illustrated leaflets and films, as well as discussion.

Training should be focused on the target groups of poor women and young people, to include a variety of skills which will enable them to generate more income within the sector, and to expand out of agriculture while still working in rural areas. What's more, training needs to be made available to people in the late afternoon in coffee washing stations during the coffee season, or in tea processing plants throughout the year, bearing in mind the needs of women in each location and the conditions suitable for them to attend.

Other practical recommendations include allowing both husband and wife to join cooperatives, and obtain the benefits of membership equally, and help for women with domestic labour duties and credit.