Women’s Tears or Coffee Blight? Gender Dynamics and Livelihood Strategies in Contexts of Agricultural Transformation in Tanzania

 -From Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy: A triannual Journal of Agrarian South Network and CARES

Introduction

What happens to rural societies when the economic basis of their existence is suddenly transformed for the worse? When crops on which they had relied for income and livelihoods suddenly become worthless, or smitten by diseases whose treatment is just too expensive to bear? And, most particularly, how are the impacts of these misfortunes mediated by gender relations within the societies they afflict, and how do they themselves alter gender relations?

One of the most well-known instances of declining fortunes of rural producers is the collapse of farm gate coffee prices which reflects a mixture of oversupply and marketing structures. It has been particularly exasperating for development activists and campaigners who have seen a collapse in coffee farmers’ incomes, and this juxtaposed to the rise of consumer prices in rich countries.

All of them create the uncomfortable contradiction of rich companies in the value chain profiting from northern drinking habits while southern farmers go hungry. Ponte (2002b, p. 1099) neatly captured the contradictions observing that:

the global coffee chain has gone through a ‘latte revolution’, where consumers can choose from (and pay dearly for) hundreds of combinations of coffee variety, origin, brewing and grinding methods, flavoring, packaging, social ‘content’, and ambience. At the same time, international prices for the raw product … are the lowest in decades. Coffee industries in developing countries are in disarray. Coffee farmers are losing a source of livelihood.

We do not dispute the enormous challenges, and injustice, that this transformation of the coffee industry has entailed. But we need properly to understand the complexity of the dynamics results. In particular, before we can assume that the effects of these changes are necessarily negative for all rural families, and all members of them, we have to understand better how such dynamics play out in different contexts.

Specifically, we contend that changes in the external economic, political, and social environments are fought over and contested within households. Gender relations will determine what a coffee revolution looks like on the ground. If we are to understand well the impacts of the changing coffee economy, then we have to understand how they intersect with intra-household dynamics.

Exploring these changes allows us to make contributions to debates about the different dimensions of poverty and prosperity and the importance of considering how these are contested within families (Brockington et al., 2019Orr et al., 2014Ossome, 2014).

 

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