Africa

From honey to money: Sweet success of Cameroon's women beekeepers

Updated 12:17 PM ET, Wed June 10, 2015
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In north-west Cameroon, a cooperative of women beekeepers gently nurture hives in the rural outskirts of the town of Bamenda. Through the sales of their honey, these enterprising women are able to provide for their families and pay for their children to attend school. Award-winning documentary photographer Eleri Griffiths traveled to the region to meet them.

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, for CNN
Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Mariana Tanda Fumsi, pictured, wanted to help women in her village generate some sort of disposable income for themselves. Shortly after graduating from high school, she found herself working in a honey shop. Intrigued about where the products came from and the subjects of sustainability and conservation, Fumsi quickly realized this could be a powerful pastime for local women in the area. Seventeen years on, and The Village Women Organization for Sustainable Development Cameroon has become a thriving apiary association. Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Fumsi explains: "I'd always had this idea of working with women because I came from a single home where my mother raised me all by herself. She was a widow and I was two. So this passion of working with women I developed from there." Here, local beefarmer Bridget Mbah extracts honey from a top bar bee hive. Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Griffiths, a documentary photographer, traveled to the region to learn more about the women's cooperative. She describes Fumsi with deep admiration saying: "She's a real firecracker. She's got this phenomenal energy for instigating projects and then making them happen." Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Griffiths' spent three weeks traveling around the north-west region visiting keepers who had set up their own hives. She explains that there is now a strong network of apiculturists high up in the mountain.

"Once you know one beekeeper there, you go through a network who are all in touch with one another, learn from one another. Also things like sharing equipment. Beekeeping equipment is strangely quite expensive, even to have a suit. Beekeeping suits protect yourself from stings but are quite expensive, so its easier to get together and share these things."
Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
While beekeeping was not uncommon in the region, it was mainly reserved for the men of the villages, explains Fumsi. "But I said, 'the women could still do something. They shouldn't just allow them because the man is already on the farm. The woman can have a little piece of it.'" Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Fumsi founded the cooperative in 1997 but it wasn't until she met traveling beekeeping trainer Alan Morely from volunteer organization, Bees for Development, that things really started to buzz. The international philanthropic group assists would-be beekeepers by training them in the art of apiculture and teaching them how to build and manage hives. Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
At the beginning, there were just 15 beekeepers-in-training, but over the years the group has increased to over 50 women. Fumsi puts this success to its ease when compared with traditional farming in the region. "With beekeeping -- it's less costly, its less timely, it's just within their reach. That's why I got interested in it at the beginning."

Here are two of Fumsi's cylinder hives made from hollow tree trunks.
Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Before taking up beekeeping, many women in the area struggled to make ends meet while also maintaining all the regular homemaker jobs -- a fact that spurred Fumsi to push for local women to be trained in the craft. She explains: "Actually most of the chores in the house are left to the women. And she has to get washing soap for the family, she's got to get ingredients for the family, even the school fees of the children -- she's got to pay for fees, uniform and shoes. And at times hospital bills, if its not an emergency -- she takes care of that." Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Local woman Rose Sirri gets a tastes of fresh product. Fumsi says: "(Beekeeping) is totally good for them. They get the bees themselves, they get the money, they are able to do their own thing on their own without depending on the man. Even though it's a small amount." Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Once the women extract the honey from their hives, they bottle and sell the products at the local market. The proceeds help many of them to pay for their children's tuition. But that doesn't mean the cooperative is without problems -- in recent years, the beekeepers have noticed some of their little workers are absconding due to changes in climate, a challenge they are still working out to overcome. Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
Another entrepreneurial struggle faced by the collective is the lack of infrastructure. "The market is not really that organized. At times the women have to travel far to sell their products or they have to give it to the cooperative," says Fumsi. "There's also a problem of quality because we still do it on a local level so bee farmers have a good product but we need to do better bottling." Courtesy Eleri Griffiths
HONCO Honey Cooperative Bamenda, pictured, is an affiliated organization run by Caroline Ngum, who was also trained by Alan Morely over 15 years ago.

To see more of Griffith's work, click here.
Courtesy Eleri Griffiths