Reinas Obreras: the women apiarists transforming their local community in Ecuador
12 JANUARY 2024
The story of female beekeepers in Ecuador shows that by giving women more equitable access to resources and markets, improving their technical skills and knowledge, and addressing deeply rooted social norms perpetuating gender inequalities, gender transformative programming has the potential to enhance food security, improve nutrition and transform agrifood systems.
Around 60 families live in ‘Menos Pensado’, a community in Chone in the province of Manabí near the coast of Ecuador. During the long summers marked by intense droughts, work in the surrounding corn fields dries up and food grows scarce. As a result, many women take on precarious employment in the shrimp industry, while the men leave to find work elsewhere.
After the devastating earthquake of 2016, a group of 16 women started beekeeping as an additional source of income. With training, tools and support from IsrAID and local authorities, they set up an association called ‘Reinas Obreras’ (‘Worker Queens’) producing honey which they sold at local markets and along the highway.
“When my friends told me we were going to found a beekeeping association, honestly I didn’t want to,” explained Rosa Quiroz from the neighbouring community of Tres Marías, one of the founding members of the Reinas Obreras. “I was very scared of bees. My husband told me not to go, he said the bees would sting me, they could kill me. But I told him I would wear a suit and no bees would get in. Bit by bit, I started to enjoy it.”
Their venture faced significant hurdles. The women were dismissively told that apiculture was ‘men’s work’. As the ones shouldering most care and domestic duties, they struggled to fit in their work in the fields with the upkeep of the beehives and their responsibilities at home. Meanwhile, they resorted to chemical pesticides to protect the bees from varroa mites and boost their honey production.
In 2022, in the context of the Joint Programme on Gender Transformative Approaches for Food Security and Nutrition (JP GTA), FAO and local partners started providing training to the men and women of ‘Menos Pensado’ on key elements of sustainable agrifood systems. Sessions covered the importance of natural resource preservation, the role of honeybees for ecosystems and global food security, and the nutritional value of honey. They also offered workshops on gender, leadership, self-esteem and good governance.
FAO then involved the Reinas Obreras and other members of producer organizations in a study to explore the deeply rooted social norms perpetuating the gender gaps and barriers in their community. The group discussions highlighted the role of discriminatory norms in restricting women’s potential, hampering their decision-making power and access to training and resources.
In addition, responding to the village’s growing interest in improving their nutrition, FAO and the local municipality of Chone supported the planning and planting of community gardens to give the families of ‘Menos Pensado’ regular access to fresh vegetables. The community also started a Dimitra Club as a participatory space to collectively identify solutions to their needs, where members of the Reinas Obreras actively participate.
Susana Heredia, Director for the province of Manabí at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of Ecuador, which partnered with the JP GTA on several capacity building initiatives, thinks the role of women farmers is key for food security and nutrition in Ecuador: “At the Ministry, we are committed to enhancing women’s capacities in agriculture and their economic activity. In Manabí, we have trained about 1,000 families in the use of ecological and sustainable vegetable gardens. The gardens help them to improve their nutrition, their social life and their health.”
“The collaboration with the Joint Programme has been crucial for the Ministry,” she continued. “It has enabled us to set up a roundtables to promote dialogue with rural women, increase their production capacity and improve their access to markets.”
With their new-found technical skills, the Reinas Obreras have switched to eco-friendly solutions instead of pesticides to protect the bees. Thanks to improved marketing and access to customers, sales almost doubled from 105 litres of honey in 2021 to 195 litres in 2022.
“Before, we were selling our honey along the highway. Now, thanks to the training and support we received from FAO, we have increased sales,” said Fanny Manrique, another member of the Reinas Obreras. “Using technology is easy and quick, and it’s the best thing that could happen to a small business like ours.”
The association has upgraded its packaging from plastic containers to more sustainable glass jars, now available in three sizes, and the honey is newly certified with the national ‘Family Farming’ seal issued by Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The work of the Reinas Obreras was recently showcased by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification as an example of women-led solutions to desertification, land degradation and drought.
The support of the JP GTA has enabled the women’s participation in public life and increased their self-confidence to speak up with local institutions and authorities. Fanny Manrique now represents her community in a decision-making capacity, a role traditionally allocated to men. The women are shaping local agricultural policies through the Rural Women’s Roundtable in the framework of the National Agricultural Strategy for Rural Women, ensuring that their needs and priorities are heard and incorporated in annual workplans and road maps.
Gender equality has transformed their local agrifood system. The women’s initiative to start first beekeeping and later community gardens has improved the food security and nutrition of their families. Their business has raised awareness of the need to protect trees and bees as natural pollinators for healthy eco- and agrifood systems and as an alternative economic activity to traditional agricultural productive systems.
They have also seen a shift in family roles and responsibilities, whereby the women’s economic activity is challenging the traditional gender roles of the classic rural patriarchal family model. According to a recent study, the women are supporting 80% of their families’ economic needs, and their husbands have accepted the fact that their wives income is providing opportunities for their families.
Rosa Quiroz and her husband have no children, but she says that if she had a daughter, she would encourage her to take up beekeeping. “It’s nice to work with bees, and it’s nice to work with other women. We have fun, we laugh, we travel places, and we earn money. Any time I was about to throw in the towel, I decided to stick with my Reinas Obreras.”
Image credits: ©FAO Ecuador