Coffee is big business in Rwanda. Just check the shelves of your local Starbucks.

CoEB, my research center at the University of Rwanda, put forth a research proposal to not only increase the role of women in the coffee industry here, but also their contributions to environmentally-friendly coffee production that may actually increase biodiversity. For now, most coffee production depends on burning and felling forests in order to create mono-crop fields. Our proposed work examines how particular foliage may be strategically planted to increase soil quality, wildlife habitat, and the diversity of plants. My contribution would be to examine how female farmers, most living at or below the poverty line, play a special role in biodiversity-conducive coffee. Among a team of botanists and biologists, I examine gender inequality in the coffee supply chain.

The poverty among coffee-farming families is interwoven with the particular challenges women face in the industry. First, women occupy a disproportionately high number of low-paid positions and hold relatively few positions of business or environmental leadership. Women are clustered at the picking end of the supply chain and underrepresented in foreign sales, for example.

Due to local norms about gender relations, women are often left out of the business networks that allow for upward movement within the coffee industry and miss out on the transfer of vital knowledge about environmental and business management. Current research also indicates that even when women have their names on land titles, they often do not exercise decision-making over how that land is actually used, e.g. choices about environmental sustainability in crop production.

Additionally, women often lack the technical skills and literacy necessary to work in jobs in processing units, large-scale sales, and operations logistics, so they are largely relegated to only jobs in coffee fields. These factors combine to marginalize women within coffee activities and related efforts at biodiversity conservation.

Importantly, there is ample research indicating that women’s meaningful engagement and decision-making in agricultural management has positive impacts on biodiversity outcomes. Women’s gender-specific labor roles within rural economies give them unique knowledge bases and strategic actions, unique to men, that make them key actors in green production activities. Yet, women’s specific contributions in this domain remain understudied and undervalued.