Tribes of the West, Southwest and Northwest provinces of Cameroon produce most of the country’s coffee. Men own the land and the women farm it. In fact, laws forbid women from owning land.
While female coffee farmers and cooperatives in Cameroon constitute only 10% of the production, it does not mean that women have not been active in the sector. In fact, the participation of women in Cameroonian coffee farming started at the same time as men. In the decades to come, there is a real risk of a shortage of coffee due to climate change and coffee-producing countries may not be able to meet the increased demand from emerging economies.
Cameroon must embrace female farmers in order to increase its coffee production. The women of Cameroon are decisive, accountable, transparent and they are crucial to keeping our cups filled with good quality coffee. Liberalizing Cameroon’s coffee sector is the best way to evaluate that evolving role as farmers in the country.
In 1911, the World Bank and USAID pressured the Cameroonian Government into opening the country’s coffee market. The Government ceased all its policies aimed at supporting the supply chain and stabilized price. Two direct consequences of that shift in policy were the farmers lacking inputs -such as fertilizer, pesticide- and their exposure to international price volatility.
Pre-Liberalization: Injustice toward Women
Women in most productive provinces of Cameroon did not have the right to buy land. It was almost impossible for them to own land and be a coffee producer even if they were the main laborer on their husband’s or father’s land. Traditions made things worse. Land passed down from father to son and those fathers raise their sons to take over their role in the village while daughters became servants for the husbands.
Before liberalization, women took care of the house, raised children, tended to crops to feed the family and prepare to sell to the local market. On those coffee farms, the men usually had the easy tasks: spraying, pruning and selling. Meanwhile, the women and children took on the most difficult tasks including using hoes to clear grass, maintaining tree surroundings, picking up ripe cherries by hand, drying them under the sun and sorting the beans by hand.
Before the liberalization of coffee in Cameroon, business was great for the husbands. They had free labor, sold their coffee at good price and kept all the money. The more fertile land sat closest to the family home for coffee farming while the less fertile land used for food was further away. Usually, the husband took away the food crops from the wife to increase his coffee farm, leaving her with even less means of income. Many times women had to fight men’sattempts to take away the last plot of land remaining for food crops. By selling some of the food the wives would earn a little money to buy inexpensive products for the kitchen, cooking and toiletry. More importantly, they gained great knowledge and experience in the food crop trade networks. That knowledge would soon become a game changer post-liberalization of the coffee market in Cameroon.
Liberalizing Cameroon’s Coffee
Coffee remained Cameroon’s largest agricultural product until the 1980s, exporting 110,000 tons of coffee annually. More than 400,000 rural households depended on coffee as their livelihood. These peak export levels were caused largely by the government policies to support male farmers and stabilize price. The coffee trade was under state control up until 1991 and then the World Bank, USAID and others pressured the government to open the country’s coffee business to the free market, dismantling all of the support structures. The lack of support in supply of inputs, coupled with exposure to international price volatility, aging trees and the collapse of the national cooperative resulted in the collapse of the country’s production around 1994. Coffee has since lost its place of most exported agricultural commodity in Cameroon. By 2010, coffee was Cameroon’s fourth largest agricultural export. The country produced about 50,000 tons of Robusta and nearly 12,000 tons of Arabica; over 98% of coffee in Cameroon is exported.
An unexpected dynamic
The main consequence of liberalization in the villages was the drastic decline in coffee income for the men. Quickly, wives demanded more plot land from their husbands to expand their food crop farming. They also started pushing for more tree diversification. This situation has seen the expansion of sugarcane, avocado, mango, kola and plum.
After the young men in the villages left for the cities in search of education, economic and intercultural opportunities, the aging farmers had no choice but to hire women. This provided wives with more food to sell and more job opportunities, increasing their income while their husbands’ income continued to decrease. Men relinquished the breadwinner role, while women started paying for children’s school, family healthcare, and contributing financially to weddings and funerals. Mothers also started teaching both sons and daughters farming skills such as how to use hoes and grow food crops.
Needless to say, this new dynamic led to tension.
Always Moving Forward
Today, women account for over 90% of the fresh food growers and sellers in Cameroon. They are the main workforce for coffee cherry harvestingand bean sorting. However, their husbands still own the land and it is still difficult for women to buy land in the Western Cameroon. These women have suffered for too long; the government should make it easier for them to own land.
The Northwest and Southwest provinces still ban women from owning land. Changing those absurdities not only is the right thing to do but it would be a good step to increase the number of women coffee producers, hence increasing the national production. As taboos disappear, due to the increased education and the proven qualities of women farmers, more parents consider passing down landto their daughters.
Another remarkable development in Cameroon is the growing number of educated women. Their presence has grown in all professions, from secretaries to teachers to doctors to ministers. More and more female agricultural engineers are being trained and are helping organize women coffee farmers into cooperatives.
I have not been able to verify how women acquire land but I believe the government should help them. Above all, international investment in those communities could help develop land for more large scale coffee farming. Also, coffee consumers should promote or encourage fair trade and women’s rights in those communities. Those two actions alone could help change the lives of the women farmers and their families for the long term, giving young people a good reason to remain or return to Cameroon.
I wrote this piece thinking of my mother. She works very hard and I hope she gets to rest soon. She is one of my main inspirations. I am up late working probably because I grew up watching her doing just that. She did that only so my five siblings and I learn enough to make good choices in life.
HURAULT Jean, 1970 – Essai de synthèse du système social des Bamiléké.Africa, Journal of the International African Institute, vol. XL, n° 1, p. 1-24.