CATCH THE BUZZ – Queen bees: How honey co-ops help Afghan women take control


“I make my money for me,” declared Afghan beekeeper Jamila pointing emphatically at her chest. Her small honey-making business provides not only an income, but a sense of pride. In the mountainous central province of Bamiyan, one of the country’s least developed, but most liberal regions, beekeeping complements its only other commercial crop, potatoes, and gives rural women the chance to become entrepreneurs. Four-beekeeping cooperatives have been set up here in recent years, backed by NGOs and foreign aid. Starting from scratch, they now employ around 400 people, half of them women, and produce 14 tons of honey yearly. The district of Yakawlang, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the famous giant Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban, sits around 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) above sea level. Residents are worried the arrival of winter will kill off their bees.

Bundled up tightly, they walk for more than an hour in the snow to fill their pots with honey and fix labels on them, though few know how to read. Jamila got her start a year ago thanks to her neighbor Siamui, a pioneer of the cooperative five years ago, who gave her her first colony.

“It was in April and I remember that day perfectly. I was so happy. When I was done with my housework, I could spend the whole day watching my bees and how they work!” she confessed, making the other women around her laugh.

This cooperative has collected about 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of honey this year, according to its supervisor Habitullah Noori. Each kilo fetches 800 Afghans in Bamiyan and 1,000 in Kabul – around $15. Jamila is a grandmother whose children have left home, Siamui is raising eight of her own, and Siddiqa, an orphan, takes care of four brothers and sisters. Each of them maintains one to four hives on average, the Afghans earned supplement their household incomes.

“I can pay for the bus when I want to visit my daughter. I can buy her chocolate,” says Jamila.

“I can buy notepads for the kids,” adds Halima, who is in her 20s with two children.

For widowed Marzia, the honey is the key to her very survival. She hails from the village of Qatakhan, 30 minutes from Yakawlang. It was an area overrun by the Taliban in early 2000, with many of its residents butchered after one commander instructed his charges “to kill everyone, even the dogs and chickens.”

Her husband was pulled out of his mosque and shot dead on Jan. 19 of that year.

She keeps four hives, explaining, “Earlier I started farming, sewing and reaping weeds in the mountains. My brother assisted me, but I was mostly on my own.”

“Now with the honey I can support my family. I am my own boss.”

Fifteen years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan remains a harsh place for women: in 2016, only 10 percent of salaried female employees worked outside the agricultural sector, earning 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

In the countryside, they constitute an ignored, exhausted and poorly paid workforce.

“Only 34 percent of women in this country say they are allowed to spend the money they earn,” emphasized Fatimie. “It is widely accepted here by society that women can be on the frontline to support the family,” says provincial agricultural official Abdul Wahab Mohammadi. “It’s increasing. People see it as a success story and they are copying it.”