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queen bees

How one ordinary food item has helped change these women's lives

Things can be difficult for people trying to earn a living in this part of Ethiopia, but these women are making it work.

IN PRIDE OF place on Tirasew Messeret’s wall is a black and white photograph of her husband; a handsome man sporting slicked-back hair, like a Hollywood heartthrob from a bygone era.

He died 13 years ago, just before the birth of their youngest son Habtamu, and life has been far from easy for Tirasew ever since.

1 Tirasew Messeret

Running her small farm in Ethiopia’s Amhara region (above), Tirasew has been growing maize, tef (a cereal) and coffee, and keeps cattle. Six years ago, with the help of the Agunta beekeeper’s co-operative in nearby Danangla, she started to keep bees – becoming one of a growing number of women who rely on their hives to provide them with additional income

Why is this such a difficult thing to do? 

Despite the Ethiopian government instituting a National Policy for Women, outlawing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in 2004 and advocating female education and positions in public office, moves towards gender equality hang in the balance against traditional ways of life.

6 A member of the co-op goes to check her hives

There’s a discrepancy between male and female literacy rates in rural areas; in Amhara, FGM is in decline but still practised, and women’s lives, largely due to the practicalities of childrearing, are centred around the home and farm, where over 60% of the “informal workforce” (unpaid workers) is female.

Ethiopia has a rich tradition of beekeeping, but it’s one that women have been excluded from. Traditionally, cylindrical beehives were suspended from trees, and men climbed the trees to harvest the honey.

2 A tree hive high in the branches of a tree

Negotiating prices at market is a male job too, and for a widow like Tirasew, this means she used to command a price of just 6 birr per kilo (around 24c) when she first began producing honey, which is significantly lower than what men would get.

What’s changed in recent years?

Through advocacy and training, Tirasew now gets 80 birr (€3.20) per kilo for her honey. Training has improved the yield and purity of the product, which helps come negotiating time.

“We used to use dried cow dung to smoke the hives, and this made the honey dark,” Tirasew says. “Now we use maize husks or olive wood.”

Shashe Fikadu, the head of Agunta co-operative, was the first female member when they started with 255 members; now, of 1,848 members, 1,166 are women. She has ambitions for the future of the co-op.

15 Four of the 1,166 female members of the Agunta co-op

“Now that we have our Fair Trade certificate we can produce honey for export standard,” she says.

Ethiopia has the best quality honey, and women should benefit from their work.

Keeping five hives brings in around €128 per year for a relatively small amount of labour in an economy where unskilled workers are paid 50 birr (€2) per day in Chinese shoe factories and on building sites.

The tough job of trying to expand outside Ethiopia 

The Agunta co-op is part of an umbrella group called Zenbaba Honey and Bee Products Co-operative, which was founded in 2006 and is assisted by Oxfam Great Britain and USAID to buy processing equipment and begin producing box hives. Box hives kept on the ground are accessible to women.

10 Abekellesh Kefeale and her 18-month-old child on their way home from their smallholding.

“The money from our bees helped to pay for her education,” Bayushe Ayemenu says, pointing to a graduation photograph of her elder daughter.

As well as five high-yielding box hives, Bayushe and her husband, Yebelltal Alme, still have two traditional hives in a  tree at the edge of their maize field.  Who climbs the tree to check the hives? Does Bayushe? She erupts in peals of laughter: “No, Yebelltal does that!”

Have the changing gender roles caused any marital tension? How does Yebelltal feel about his wife’s business skills and training? “I am proud of my wife,” he says.  “

She is very strong and she is a good business woman. We still make most of our household decisions together, but we are a strong partnership and we divide the work fairly. The money from our beekeeping is a big help and that is because of Bayushe’s cleverness.

In Zenbaba’s office in Bahir Dar several weeks ago, Sintayehu Mengistie, head of the union that represents 12,000 beekeepers, can hardly stop working to talk.

11 Sintayehu Mengistie in his office

“75% of our honey is harvested in November,” he says, signing forms and reading emails.

In a matter of weeks, Zenbaba will have processed 90 barrels of honey for their first export to a global honey company which spotted the potential of Ethiopian honey and opened an office in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia was given EU import approval in 2008 for honey, but EU rules are stringent and Zenbaba struggles with quality control and infrastructural issues. In a developing country, even something like food-grade steel drums for bulk export are a problem; the honey company is assisting Zenbaba by giving them recycled barrels to ship their honey.

12 Workers at Zenbaba's processing plant preparing to export honey to Italy

Prices per barrel may be good by local standards but bulk export doesn’t add value; a common trap faced by developing countries who can’t access the European market because they lack the packaging and labelling materials and the know-how to market a supermarket-shelf ready product.

4 Bees hard at work

Sintayehu hopes to build towards an exportable, value-added product, and with Fair Trade and Organic certification, Zenbaba should be able to negotiate a sweet deal for the Queen bees of the Agunta co-operative.


This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 

All photographs by Ellie O’Byrne 

Photos: Why these 9 women stopped carrying out female genital mutilation on young girls > 

The life of a child bride and mother: ‘My husband beat me regularly. He eventually left me.’ > 

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