“Collective Action” holds great promise for multitudes of women whose primary livelihood is dependent on their ability to farm the land and access markets. An Oxfam research project on Women’s Collective Action (WCA) in Africa has gathered evidence on effective ways for women smallholders to enhance their incomes, asset ownership, and empowerment. One part of the research looked at women honey producers in Ethiopia.
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.
One case in the report is that of Bosena Atnafu.
Bosena, 40 years old, is seen as one of the most successful women beekeepers in Amhara region. She is a well-respected member of her community and an executive committee member of Meserethiwot honey cooperative. She has succeeded in spite of having had a relatively difficult childhood, never attending school and getting married at an extremely young age (eight years old).
As a married woman, she had to carry out all the traditional duties and responsibilities expected of rural mothers in the region, without much support from her first husband and his family.
Bosena is known for being proactive and adopting new ideas before others in her village. It is because of this quality that she was the first woman sent for training by Oxfam to help form women-only groups in the area. After the training, Bosena was asked to select 20 women from poorer households to join her in establishing a village women-only group, called Serto Madeg. Her selection criteria for membership included trustworthiness, being an active member of the community, readiness to work with others, ownership of at least one beehive, and having enough assets to be able to participate in group activities.
Bosena likes to try new activities and understand how things work. She had already tried beekeeping on her own, before Oxfam’s intervention, and had studied bees’ anatomy and behaviour in detail. During the beekeeping training sessions provided by Oxfam, the trainer asked the group a series of questions that no-one but Bosena could answer. Her knowledge really impressed the trainer, who recommended that she become an executive committee member of the honey cooperative.
Under the rotational leadership model practised by SertoMadeg, Bosena was elected as chairperson for the first six months. The other members believe that the example set by her is the reason why the group is performing better than the other nine groups in the area, and she is seen as a role model for other women in the village. In addition, Bosena has been elected to the executive committee of Meserethiwot cooperative, in recognition of her leadership skills and knowledge of beekeeping. The committee realized that, although she is not literate, she performs very well at representing the interests of women and attracting more women members into the cooperative.
She is the first woman to hold a senior position on the committee, which has broken with the traditional thinking that this kind of position is only for men. Bosena feels she has a very close and supportive relationship with her second husband. He encourages her to go to meetings and even advises other husbands to support their wives in CA group activities. Bosena recognizes that she would not be able to carry out her group roles and responsibilities without his help.
Bosena appreciates the support provided by Oxfam, such as training, encouragement to take on leadership positions, and access to financial support. Oxfam has also provided her with assets, including modern hives and safety equipment. She says that without Oxfam’s support, “I would remain just like any housewife in our village with no information about the external world… I would not attend meetings, let alone lead them… I could only play a very minor role in the beekeeping sector.”