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Liquid Gold: Women in Kenya Find Food Security In Beekeeping

Struggling to find nutritional food to give their children in Kenya’s drought-stricken Rift Valley, villagers defied the taboo against women owning beehives and now produce enough honey to feed and support their families.

Written by Wesley Lang’at Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Beekeeping is less labor intensive and requires much less water than farming or cattle rearing, making it a sustainable option for communities struggling to survive through prolonged drought. Donat Sorokin\TASS via Getty Images

BARINGO, Kenya  It’s 11 a.m. in Kipcherere, a village in Kenya’s northern Rift Valley. A group of 10 women and three men are sitting under an acacia tree holding their weekly meeting. The main item on the agenda: honey sales.

In this arid zone in the north of Baringo county, livelihoods depend on livestock, but animal survival rates are low, leading to a desperate shortage of milk. For years, Paulina Kopilo, 60, a mother of four, could not get milk to feed her family due to a prolonged drought – few animals survive the dry periods, and those that do give little milk. So like many of the other women in the group, Kopilo has turned to honey.

Beekeeping has long been a popular livelihood in Baringo: The county produces 579 tonnes (1.3 million lbs) of honey every year. But with drought making it difficult to live off livestock, more people are turning to keeping bees as an alternative source of food and income.

“We never used to give milk to our children because it is not even available,” Kopilo says. “We give honey to young children and they eat it with ugali [a cornmeal porridge]. It is medicinal and at the same time very nutritious for them.”

Hit by climate change, environmental degradation and water scarcity, Kenya’s Baringo county has seen conflict over food, water, pastures and livestock. The UNICEF Kenya Humanitarian Situation Report for November 2017 found 3.4 million people across the country are acutely food insecure.

World Food Program report shows that drought in Kenya’s arid areas continues to drive food insecurity and deepen malnutrition, pushing the number of young children suffering from acute malnutrition to 268,000 in 23 arid and semi-arid counties.

The Benefits of Beekeeping

Philip Owiti is the livestock production officer at the ministry of agriculture in Nakuru West and oversees the beekeeping industry in Nakuru County. Owiti says beekeeping is well suited to arid areas, since it uses very little water, unlike cattle rearing or farming that rely on heavy rains.

“Beekeeping is one of the most environmentally friendly agricultural practices. It’s simple to do and requires no spraying or weeding like other farming. It’s not resource intensive,” he says.

He also notes that bees play a significant role in the pollination of fruit crops such as pawpaws, oranges and watermelons, which do well in arid regions like Baringo. And with more fruit crops comes more honey – a cycle that goes a long way to increasing food security in the region.

Forbidden To Count Hives

But beekeeping has not been an option for the women in Kipcherere for long. The practice is usually reserved for men, who tend to their hive and dictate whether to give the honey to their families or whether to sell it, depending on how much their bees produce.

When asked how many beehives her husband used to own, Kopilo says she was forbidden to count them.

“As a wife, it doesn’t concern you to go counting the number of hives your husband has. It is a taboo in our community; we only wait to be brought our share for the children.”

Then last year, Hand In Hand International, a development organization that works with farmers, came to Kipcherere and offered training in entrepreneurial skills and new methods of farming, including beekeeping. The Uswoni Women’s group – which takes its name from a shade-giving tree – decided it was time to push aside the taboo and signed up for the program.

Loise Cheboi, chair of the Uswoni Women’s Group in Kipcherere, Kenya, records attendance at a weekly meeting. The group has become so successful through beekeeping, some men have even joined. (Wesley Lang’at)

Loise Cheboi, chair of the Uswoni Women’s Group, says since the women were introduced to beekeeping, they have been able to feed their families despite not having access to milk.

“We eat honey mixed with porridge, very nutritious for children,” she says. “If you ask any one of us how many times we have taken our children to the hospital due to nutrition-related ailments, it is a very rare case here.”

And the women also have a new source of income. “When you sell one gallon of honey you make 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($9.70). This can help pay school fees or buy food for the house,” says Cheboi.

Honey All Year Round

James Macheria, a branch manager at Hand in Hand, says the organization provides the farmers with beehives – it has distributed a total of 683 hives in different regions around Baringo so far – and works with the farmers on resource mobilization, marketing and adding value to their produce. The farmers learn about improved methods of harvesting and packaging honey, and get access to modern beehives and honey-harvesting toolkits.

Villages are encouraged to plant fruit trees instead of relying on flowering indigenous trees to make beekeeping sustainable year-round. “We give these groups fruit seeds like avocados, oranges and other seedlings that do well in arid areas,” Macheria says.

“The fruit plants have different flowering seasons, so there will be bees – and honey – all year, unlike traditional production whose yields depended on short flowering seasons.”

Pauline Kopilo, who now owns three beehives, says the move to beekeeping has transformed her life.

“Since I joined this group, I have received training that has empowered me to be self-reliant and to have the capacity to exploit beekeeping, which was only confined to men,” she says.

“I wish I had been trained in my youth. I would have been in a better place now.”

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