Work of a long haul: promoting female leadership in fair trade coffee in DRC Congo

Making real progress on gender equality on the ground is more than simply counting the number of female clients. It is about changing a mindset. Since gender norms are deeply embedded in society and the local cultural context, a deeper field expertise is indispensable. Technical assistance is a valuable way to clear the path. Although changing mindsets is a work of a long haul, Incofin’s partner organization SOPACDI, a coffee cooperative in DRC, is willing to go the extra mile to promote female leadership in a male-dominant cultural context  

SOPACDI (Solidarité pour la Promotion des Actions Café et le Développement Intégral) is a coffee processing and exporting cooperative located in North Kivu, DRC. Founded in 2006, the institution is recognized as the first and most longstanding Fairtrade certified cooperative in the country. Its outreach is quite significant as it gathers 11.768 producers including 30% of women, all of whom are Fairtrade and Organic certified.  

SOPACDI and Incofin joined forces and launched a year ago a project to work on more gender inclusivity among coffee producers. That is why Incofin invited an expert in this area into the project: Trias is a Belgian NGO with successful experiences with similar projects in Africa. Both SOPACDI and the Fairtrade Access Fund TA Facility allocated the necessary budget for this Technical Assistance project.

“SOPACDI wanted to organize these trainings to help its members, both men and women, understand that gender should not be an obstacle for women to play the same roles in social life as men, because there was always this tendency to believe that women would be inferior to men because of their skills.” – Masumbuko Maheshe Neema, Vice President of the Board of SOPACDI

46 producers, including 27 women, participated in workshops on female leadership. After the trainers of TRIAS introduced some basic concepts about gender equality, the floor was open to the farmers.  

The main objective is to stimulate women’s leadership. We encouraged women to take up responsibility and to encourage other women as well. We noticed a recovery of women’s self-confidence and they started to express themselves freely.” – Lavilé Zoumanigui, Program Coordinator TRIAS

The women raised their concerns and grievances around the poor distribution of family income, which is appropriated by men; how men generally hold women responsible if the children are poorly educated; the fact that women do not receive the same income as men in the premium distributions in the coffee buying committees.  

“We learned what gender differences used to mean compared to nowadays. In a company, for example, there is no function or job only for men and women, all can do the same job if they are capable. This is different to how it was in the past, especially within our families, where there was food for men that women were not allowed to eat, housework just for girls for example, within the religion, women could not preach in a church, which is not the case today. Some men still cultivate a toxic masculinity and hide the fear for more gender balance behind religion and societal customs.”  – Celine Nsimire Mweze

Many men in the room felt that the notion of gender encourages women to rebel and disobey and can cause problems within the family, and even within the cooperative. TRIAS showed them through examples that women willing to take on more leadership responsibilities was not against them could rather work in their favor. Although sometimes difficult, these sessions led both men and women to dare to question traditional ideas. By starting the conversation, men began to feel less threatened by women stepping up and voicing their concerns and started to understand the obstacles that keep women from reaching their full potential.  

“These teachings helped us to understand that the difference is only biological and that socially and professionally, men and women can assume the same functions at any level. My personal perception has completely changed.” – Shamavu Ngushu Manasseh

Currently, SOPACDI has included some articles in its statutes that clarify that members are equal regardless of gender and have the same rights and obligations within the cooperative. It is a first step towards more gender equality, but the process for real change does not end there.  

“At Incofin, we are thrilled by the opportunity to support our clients in their actions towards gender equality. We realize this is work of a long haul and we will follow up the progress in the SOPACDI communities.” – Samuel Kariuki, Investment Manager for Incofin


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