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May | June 2018

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DEVELOPING THEMSELVESWashing Stations and Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda

Story and photos by Aleida Stone

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Surrounded by warm sunshine and cool green hills in the Southern Province of Rwanda, a woman coffee producer stands, surrounded by her peers. They are congregated at the washing station where they have expertly processed their coffee cherries for the past two harvest seasons.

“I come here in the morning without cooking, without making food in the home,” she says. “When I go back home, I see that my husband cooks, washes bathroom or clothes, goes to find the grass of cows, and so on and so forth. That is equality.”

Sitting among them, discussing coffee and their goals for the forthcoming season, it is easy to forget that some of these confident, passionate women have described living most of their lives unaware of their own humanity—undervalued both in work and as human beings. Though their lives today are not without injustice or disparity, progress has been made. One by one, they feel safer, more self-assured, and proud to share their unique stories as successful businesspeople, valued members of their households and influential leaders in their communities.

These Rwandan coffee producers are shining examples of the change that is possible when support and resources appropriately reflect the unique circumstances and experiences of the people they intend to serve.


It seems obvious today that women and men experience the world differently, yet it was only decades ago that scholars of international development began specifically highlighting this reality. In 1970, for example, Danish economist Ester Boserup shone light on the fact that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, as European colonialism spread throughout Africa, rulers dismantled women’s status as instrumental actors within the agricultural sector, based on the presumption that men were inherently more effective farmers, despite the fact that farming was traditionally part of the women’s role. Men received resources and training, while women became less informed and less equipped to engage gainfully in the sector. As modern commercial agricultural systems progressed, women became increasingly marginalized. International development scholars Ruth Pearson, Ann Whitehead and Kate Young expanded on Boserup’s work in the mid-1980s, shifting focus away from simply acknowledging the presence of women toward documenting their unique experiences and roles within development.

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Appearing more professional by wearing clothing made of kitenge fabric significantly impacts how women producers feel about themselves and their work. 

Undoubtedly, remnants of this time are still widely experienced around the world. However, thanks in large part to these scholars and many who followed, there is growing acceptance by international agencies and private-sector stakeholders—including green coffee buyers and roasters—that gender matters.

While working through my post-graduate research in development studies at York University in Toronto, it came as little surprise that existing studies and theories on both women and coffee recognized them individually and jointly as “means of development,” or tools that can be used to precipitate change. Coffee, a commodity produced almost exclusively in developing nations, can be a source of income for millions of small-scale producer households and is a popular focus for third-party certifications. Similarly, there is an ever-growing value being placed on women as essential contributors to household well-being, sources of economic and political stability, and stewards of the environment.

Having said that, the label “means of development” can, in fact, be a source of harmful oversight. It provides the industry with unrealistic expectations to value coffee and women as silver bullets, laying responsibility on them to solve broad and deeply rooted development challenges. This label fails to recognize that coffee as a commodity still encounters volatile global market prices and is, in many ways, unsustainable both environmentally and as a profession for a majority of producers. Women, as essential contributors to agricultural supply chains and households, still face lower wages than their male counterparts, sweeping sexual harassment and, in many cases, a doubling of their workload, as they are expected to continue their traditional household responsibilities in addition to laboring outside the home. The fact that unequal political and legal rights in many places do not support women’s specific needs clearly exacerbates these issues.

In an attempt to begin addressing this oversight and expand on traditional development strategies, I conducted my own research, exploring some of the ways female coffee producers can be supported not solely as caregivers and economic stimuli, but as empowered human beings.

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The Study

Over the course of three months in 2016, I conducted a qualitative research study throughout Rwanda. My primary aim was to explore whether—and how—from their own perceptions, women coffee producers’ relations with specialty coffee washing stations can facilitate their empowerment.

Collecting data through participant observation, semi-structured interviews and a focus group, I was able to gain insight from several angles—a crucial consideration because of the complex nature of qualitative research. In all, I conducted 44 one-on-one interviews and one women-only producer focus group, and I documented my observations during visits to more than a dozen washing stations as well as additional farm plots.

Though my aim was to hear and value the voices of the women themselves, in order to obtain a broader spectrum of contextually pertinent perspectives, I also engaged with three participant groups: female coffee producers, male and female coffee washing station staff, and male and female coffee washing station owners and nonprofit partner organization staff. The women producers were selected at random from those who volunteered to participate. They stated their ages as ranging from 40 to 60 years old. About two-thirds of these participants lived with a spouse; one-third were the sole head of household. Most had at least one child, and their simple homes were all located in rural, agricultural-dependent communities. As a nonessential component of this study (and due to time constraints), male producers were not interviewed one-on-one. Both female and male participants were, however, included in farm observations and two of the three participant groups.

To provide a comprehensive array of contexts through which to analyze the study’s aim, while at the same time maintaining clarity and a sensible framework, I chose four case studies from the washing stations I visited. Two of these case studies represent cooperative structures, and two represent private ownership structures. Two are domestic ventures, and two are foreign. Furthermore, two incorporate trade strategies directly targeting and engaging with women as producers, while two involve themselves less directly in gender issues.

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The significance of closing the gap between production and consumption is palpable as women producers cup their coffee at their cooperatively owned washing station.

Data analysis naturally organized around the ways washing stations tend to engage with women coffee producers. Using only the data collected from women producers, I identified the women’s perceived benefits of these methods of engagement. I then identified the benefits that reflect this study’s definition of “empowerment” (i.e., an individual’s capacity to actively and strategically transform herself). Data collected from other participant groups and observations were used to support the analysis process; specifically, they were used for cross-referencing in an effort to support patterns, inconsistencies and anomalies among the data.

Empowerment is not simply an outcome; it is also a meaningful journey. Because I believe this complex concept has been underutilized as an approach to development strategies, it was a fitting focus for me as I sought to expand on these traditional strategies. To center this study so pointedly on the women coffee producers’ relationships with washing stations was to bring greater awareness to this significant yet underrated association. As in most coffee-producing regions, washing stations in Rwanda de-pulp, wash and dry coffee from their surrounding communities. They are therefore widely recognized for their remarkable contribution to coffee quality. They also allow many small-scale coffee producers to engage more directly with the supply chain, acting as gateways through which producers can access development initiatives.

Rwanda presented a particularly unique and interesting opportunity for conducting gender research in coffee. The nationwide turmoil in 1994 resulted in a modern country today, with progressive, gender-equality-responsive ministries, policies and laws—including equal rights to work and pay, and the prohibition of gender-based violence and discrimination—as well as a quality-driven coffee sector. This pairing is arguably unparalleled in any other coffee-producing country.

As one woman coffee producer explained, “The woman has been underdeveloped because of the history of our country, but now, [advances such as] the washing station target the development of the women, helping them to avoid the shame they had in the past.”

The Findings

Washing stations are clearly a source of pride for many Rwandans, and it was in these special spaces throughout the country that I had the privilege to speak frankly with many women about their lives as coffee producers. Through their personal stories, these women revealed the three most significant ways washing stations can engage with them in support of their empowerment: training, assets and access. And while none is powerful enough in isolation to generate empowerment, if washing stations consider what, how and when they offer training, assets and access, in ways that reflect the women’s specific needs and wants, they can significantly impact women’s capacity for decision-making and action and, ultimately, empowerment.


In Rwanda, many washing stations offer training programs to the producers with whom they trade. These programs vary from station to station, but they tend to be similar in their holistic approach, in many cases offering both technical agricultural and household capacity-building skills. These include pruning, fertilization and pest control methods, as well as home composting, sanitation and gender sensitization (gender equality awareness). The women perceive these skills to have contributed to their income earning ability and, in turn, their role as key household decision-makers.

As one women producer put it, “Because of training, teaching, [among other] things, women go up.”

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Women producers participate in a research focus group.

Additionally, many study participants noted an overall shift in value placed on women and their work as a result. By virtue of gender-inclusive training (training offered to women and men), women producers describe feeling, in general, that they are regarded more equitably as active members of their households and communities, and more respected and welcomed to engage in economic and political decision-making. Other stakeholders—including washing station managers, nongovernmental organization partners, export company staff, community members and spouses—identify the women as “knowledgeable” and “powerful” individuals. The women describe this as being “developed.”

One woman producer described the changes that have occurred since the enactment of gender-specific laws and policies following the 1994 genocide, and the increasing efforts of coffee washing station owners to support gender equality as a result.

“The power belonged to men, as they were the ones voting and electing leaders,” she said. “Now there is more balance in both voice and leadership,” she added, referring to issues related to the government, washing stations and households.

According to the women producers’ descriptions of their household and community relations since they began actively participating in training, gender-inclusive programs appear to promote a deeper recognition of and appreciation for gender issues by participants and those around them. The women indicated that this has contributed to changes in cultural norms and roles. Indeed, some women producers described how those roles have become less clear-cut. The women and their spouses find themselves freed from convention and more willing to take on functional jobs and tasks based on their individual capacities and household needs rather than cultural norms.

One woman producer reported numerous benefits related to this shift away from traditional gender roles. For example, she can now go to the washing station to process the coffee while her husband, who is less physically able to do heavy manual labor than she is, can stay home and care for the animals. The benefits, she added, extend to the entire community: As women become more involved outside their homes, they have more influence over politics and governance.

“So gender is very important for me because it helps us to develop,” she said, “to avoid conflict in our homes and in society.”

Women producers also benefit deeply from women-centered training, which provides them with their own space to learn and eliminates any traditional power dynamic between genders. That being said, it is important to note that the benefits derived from such a strategy appear to be deepest when offered in addition to gender-inclusive training programs. That is, it is key that men also learn about and appreciate equality. The significance of this reveals itself in anecdotes of washing stations excluding men from training in support of women. Rather than leading to progress, this was said to cause men to feel alienated and reject the equality strategy altogether.

In short, when women and men are provided with the opportunity to learn together about equality, groundbreaking shifts can occur. Women producers report that they believe access to and capacity to participate in training with men and their peers has had a positive impact not only on their own knowledge and power, but on how others perceive their knowledge and power as well.

One woman producer reported, “The woman has a voice and plays a greater role in the community. She stands up and talks. She says what she thinks.” This, in turn, supports the women’s capacity to make decisions and effect change in their lives. In other words, the producer continued, “Now we discuss everything, and we make a decision together.”


Some—though not all—washing stations in Rwanda offer coffee producers opportunities to earn assets, such as cellphones, rubber boots, goats and sleeping mats, among other items. Typically, producers earn points for implementing newly learned skills from a washing station’s training program, and the points can be exchanged for assets.

When assets are earned, they act as visual indicators of an individual’s efforts, exemplifying the value of her work. People tend to recognize, even if on a superficial level, that whatever a woman producer has done to earn the asset is a symbol of, using their own word, “good.” Several women described the happiness their spouses exude when they see the assets the women have earned from their hard work. In turn, household members advocate for women to maintain these professional efforts, and community members describe their desire to engage in the same gainful endeavors. Even women who have not earned assets from a washing station described the benefits experienced by those who have.

Still, though assets are an important element in the washing stations’ programs, not all earned assets are equally impactful. Resources such as cellphones and rubber boots certainly seem practical; however, by observing the way women dressed when meeting with me and the way they described the confidence they feel outside their homes, I concluded there is one asset that is unequivocally significant to these women’s empowerment: kitenge, a traditional fabric.

Many of the women reported that they have had limited access to adequate clothing and shoes. This effectively limited their capacity to participate in society and the respect bestowed on them by others. Without appropriate clothing, an individual is unable to leave the house, let alone actively participate in larger society—socially, economically or politically.

As one woman producer put it, “No clothes, nothing to do. No clothes, no food.”

In essence, earning an asset the women producers deem valuable—such as kitenge, in this case—contributes to their social status and positive sense of self, supporting their capacity to strategically and actively make decisions which, ultimately, contributes to their empowerment.


Despite the fact that coffee has been grown in Rwanda for generations, the proliferation of washing stations is relatively recent, initiated by the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), a project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by Michigan State University, established in 2000. This development has played a significant role in changing the ways in which women producers engage in, and are valued within, the Rwandan coffee supply chain.

In effect, washing stations have played a central role in democratizing the coffee sector by leveling the playing field through mechanizing the pulping process, which previously was done by hand with rocks; centralizing the selling point, eliminating the need to travel long distances to markets in search of a buyer; and providing access to training and assets. A woman producer’s commercial engagement with a washing station makes her work more visible, profitable and safe. It also promotes the credibility of coffee production as a respected business and, therefore, the value of the producer as a businessperson.

“In the community, we are considered as powerful because of this washing station,” one producer reported. “I sell, I get income, rather than those who don’t sell here. I paid money for school fees. I buy what I want.”

Moreover, washing stations are physical spaces where women can congregate proudly. With these reliable and safe communal spaces, new sources of social and financial support have become accessible, and women producers are therefore able to manage household issues more directly and effectively.

“It is very good, and we are very happy when we bring our coffee to the washing station,” said one woman producer. “We are together, dancing, resolving our problems.”

The women producers I spoke with unanimously deemed washing stations as key to their capacity to make decisions about and actively engage in and benefit from their work—all of which contributes to their empowerment.

The Lesson

The women producers I spoke with reported vast improvements in the quality of their lives, particularly related to their marriages and social standing. Some were seemingly in disbelief that this type of change has been possible, having previously endured social, economic and political turmoil. Filled with self-worth, speaking assertively and knowledgeably, dressed in their best kitenge, these women were empowered to come to their washing stations and discuss their lives as coffee producers.

“Their confidence is palpable,’” said a representative from a nonprofit partner organization. “They know how to talk to people, and they want to talk to people, and they want to tell their own story. One would assume that’s going to help propel them in the future.”

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Cooperative members in Rwanda’s Eastern Province greet visiting coffee buyers at their communal farm plot.

Expanding development strategies in ways that more effectively support women will require research to determine the unique circumstances of each coffee-growing community. This will take time, effort and capital, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer to economic challenges, and certainly not to equity and empowerment issues. In the case of Rwanda, for example, the term “gender equity” is not universally interpreted, and therefore cannot be engaged with in just one way.

Rather than evoking narrow images of women’s equal rights, women producers in Rwanda widely described the term “gender equity”—as did most of the Rwandans I spoke with—as encompassing the entire family unit. It is not about women versus men, but rather the relationships between people.

One woman producer explained it this way: “Gender is about respect, advice between women and men. Don’t force men, or men don’t force women. We sit here on the mat, and we discuss what is going on, and we find a solution as soon as possible.”

Another woman producer described gender equity as “about the conversation with my husband. … Both men and women are equal. Man, woman, child are same. We work together. We play together. We make decision with conversation together. All things done together.”

This collective, supportive and mutually beneficial way of thinking can be a lesson for the international coffee industry, promoting inclusivity, collaboration and communication, as all people support one another to promote positive change. If the industry intends to continue to push the boundaries of inclusivity and sustainability throughout the entire coffee supply chain, perhaps availing ourselves of Rwanda’s unique approach would be a good place to start.


ALEIDA STONE is passionate about linking practical and theoretical understandings of the coffee supply chain. Previously a barista, roaster, trainer and wholesale account manager, Stone is a 2017 master’s of arts graduate in development studies from York University in Toronto and a freelance development consultant. At present, she is working on projects in Rwanda, Colombia and Guatemala, using research to support sustainable partnership development between coffee suppliers and buyers.

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