A taste of honey - reaching marginalised women in Ethiopia

Posted by Sally King Sustainable Livelihoods Programme Resource Officer

8th Mar 2013

Wubalem (second right) and neighbours load racks taken from a modern hive into a centrifuge that will separate the honey from the wax. The racks, complete with wax, will then be replaced in the hive. Credit: Tom Pietrasik/Credit
At Oxfam, much like Hannibal from 1980s cult classic, the A-Team we love it when a plan comes together, which is why we are so pleased that our research into Women's Collective Action (WCA) has revealed that NGO interventions really can make all the difference when trying to reach the most marginalised women and households.

At first glance, the honey sector in Ethiopia appears to be an unlikely place in which to find women forming producer groups, taking leadership positions and benefiting from increased income generation. Especially when many of the participating women are young, unmarried or from marginalised groups.

Beekeeping and honey production are largely male-dominated occupations, partly because harvesting honey from traditional hives requires climbing trees, but also because women's ability to engage in producing and marketing honey and bee products has been hindered by a lack of necessary assets, such as land and equipment, and limited access to market services and functions, including finance, marketing and technical training.

Working collectively, but not open to all?

Our WCA research gathered evidence on effective ways of organising for women smallholders to enhance their incomes, asset ownership and empowerment. For this project, we used 'collective action' to refer to various types of group activity, formal or informal, women-only or mixed, with a purpose of promoting women's role as agricultural market actors. For example, producer groups, savings and credit groups, or cooperatives.

We found that working collectively can result in multiple benefits to communities and individuals: improved product quality, yield, prices, and income, social status and leadership skills. So far, so good, but it appeared that not all women were able to benefit equally from participating in collective action groups. 

Having free time to attend meetings and carry out group activities, as well as support to cover childcare or household duties are key to enabling women's participation.

In Mali's shea sector and Tanzania's vegetables sector, members of collective groups tend to be older and married, with a correspondingly higher social status than comparable women who are not involved in group activities. Having free time to attend meetings and carry out group activities, as well as support to cover childcare or household duties are key to enabling women's participation. In order to widen access, NGOs in the Ethiopian honey sector have tailored interventions to prioritise female-headed households and marginalised women. 

As a result, younger and unmarried women in Ethiopia have been able to access and benefit from collective action: improved product quality, yield, prices, and income, social status and leadership skills. 

So, what made a difference?

A combination of enabling factors created an opportunity for women to start to engage in market activities within the sector: 

  • Prioritising female-headed households - NGOs identified which women were in most need of support and interventions were then tailored to fit their needs.
  • Asset provision and training  - to overcome the barriers faced by women lacking in assets and skills, Oxfam and SOS Sahel subsidised the  provision of modern hives and beekeeping training to the prioritised women.  Training in production methods, processing, quality control, and leadership skills both improved the yield and quality of honey, as well as increasing the number of women involved in group activities.
  • Women-only spaces - formal mixed groups can often help women to access more profitable markets but also tend to limit their participation and leadership roles. Oxfam helped to organise small informal groups of women honey producers to develop their confidence and skills required to participate meaningfully within larger, mixed cooperatives.
  • Rotational leadership in groups - the informal women-only groups practise a system whereby the key positions (chair, secretary and accounts) change every six months and the chairing of regular meetings also rotates each week. This allows women to exercise their leadership skills in a familiar environment before hopefully moving into similar positions in formal, mixed collective action groups. 
  • Involving men - SOS Sahel conducted a consultation process with the husbands of women who had been selected to receive support, to negotiate around household barriers affecting women's participation in groups.

This improved the acceptance and legitimacy of the new roles for women in household honey production, and WCA group activities.

Read more

  • Coming soon: the research findings and country case studies will be available to download here from next week. Each case study includes a section for practitioners on how to put the key research findings into practice. So, watch this space if you're looking to increase women's participation in collective action.  

  • Meanwhile, visit our Researching Women's Collective Action page and Women's Collective Action wiki for more on this work. 

Blog post written by Sally King

Sustainable Livelihoods Programme Resource Officer

More by Sally King

Sally King