There’s a popular belief in Rwanda that bees fly away when women come near. This has discouraged more than one woman from taking up beekeeping, an activity dominated by men in many African countries. But Brigitte Muhayimana is an exception.
Ms. Muhayimana is a widow of the 1994 genocide. She makes her home in a village in southern Rwanda. Life was not easy for Ms. Muhayimana after her husband died. To support her four children, she worked a half-hectare field that she inherited from her husband. She grew beans and sweet potatoes—the staple foods in her region. This supplied food for the family, but wasn’t enough to cover other expenses. Her journey towards a better livelihood began with inspiration from a neighbour and continued when she broke down cultural barriers.
In 2006, Ms. Muhayimana decided to take up beekeeping. She got some traditional hives and received advice from a neighbour who is a long-time beekeeper. But men in her village discouraged her; they said bees would not enter her hives. They believe that bees fly away from women, especially during a woman’s menstrual period.
Ms. Muhayimana decided to learn the craft anyway. At first, she asked a man to collect honey for her. But when she realized that the man was stealing honey, Ms. Muhayimana broke the last taboo about women and beekeeping. She learned to collect the honey herself. Today, she conducts all aspects of the business. She says, “I know how to prepare the hive, attract bees, and retrieve honey.”
Ms. Muhayimana became a model of success in her village. She introduced other women to beekeeping. The women started a co-operative called Twegerane, or “getting closer” to help find markets for their honey.
Nkubiri Germain is a veterinary technician in southern Rwanda. He assists the women beekeepers and provides regular training. He says the group harvests at least 900 kilograms of honey per year. They have a good quality product and the co-operative model helps them sell it. Because the co-operative has been so successful, some village men are now interested in learning about beekeeping and have joined.
The members enjoy their new income and remain enthusiastic about beekeeping. Uwera Josée is also a beekeeper. She pays her children’s school fees with income from honey sales. She appreciates the other kinds of help the co-operative provides. For example, if she needs a cash advance for her business, the co-operative can provide a small loan. She repays it after she sells her honey.
Beekeeping brings Ms. Muhayimana 40,000 Rwandan francs per month (US$46). With this income, she purchased two new fields where she grows vegetables such as cabbages and carrots for sale. She also bought a dairy cow. She sells the milk and uses the manure in her fields.
Ms. Muhayimana has no plans to slow down. She works in her fields every morning, then walks two kilometres in the afternoon to tend to her beehives. She plans to add more beehives to earn additional income and expand her house. By combining farming and beekeeping, Ms. Muhayimana is creating a better life for herself.
This story was originally published in Barza Wire in December 2012.