Empowering Women with the Help of Honeybees

Published on: October 13, 2022, Submitted by Laura Becker on: October 13, 2022

By co-designing and piloting a hive management app with women beekeepers, the AID-CSB project ensures women influence solutions to enhance rural livelihoods. On an international scale, the project is bringing findings and recommendations to support the development of Germany's Feminist Foreign Policy.

What is women’s empowerment? 

Women's empowerment is often defined as promoting women's self-worth and improving access to education and economic activity while amplifying women's voices and influence in social, community, or climate change situations.  Women’s empowerment is an expression of the fundamental human right of gender equality and is critical to achieving a more peaceful, prosperous world.

Why is it important? 

Women deserve fundamental human rights, but women’s empowerment also has tangible benefits to society and the environment. Economically empowered women, in example, serve as climate-change-adaptation champions; they help shift gender norms around technology use; and they contribute to better health and nutrition outcomes.

According to the FAO, across much of the world women make up more than half of the agricultural workforce, and the majority of economically active women in the least-developed countries grow, sell, trade or produce agricultural-related products. But gender-specific obstacles like access to land, technology, financing, markets, and training, put many women farmers at a disadvantage. Entrenched gender roles can prevent women from bringing their products to market, accessing technologies to improve outcomes, or traveling alone to extension service sites to access information that could help improve yields. On average, women-owned farms produce 20-30% less than farms run by men; not because they lack aptitude or fortitude, but because they face these and other gender-specific barriers to market entry.

Though women could and should play a significant role in solving the social and climate-related problems that disproportionately affect them, they are often left out of such conversations and negotiations or technology development cycles even though research confirms that when women are included in the planning and implementation of climate-smart solutions, the solutions are more sustainable and efficient.

How the AID-CSB project is supporting women's empowerment

Launched in 2010, the first HiveTracks’ app was designed to help beekeepers manage hive data that had traditionally been recorded by hand and was often difficult to assess longitudinally and therefore of limited value both to the beekeeper or the scientific community. Originally designed as a web app for North American beekeepers, the words, symbols, hive types, queen types, pest species and even the logics of use were US-centric, despite this version of the app being used in 150 countries. Through the AID-CSB project, the new 2.0 version of the app—the Beekeeper’s Companion— underwent iteration to localize the app for Uzbekistan and Ethiopia. 

The app is mobile only, offline capable, and incorporates decision-making aids to help beekeepers protect hives from weather and climate risks, pests, disease, and nutritional deficiencies and malpractices. Though the beekeepers own their data and that data is protected—thus protecting privacy of women users—in the future, scientists and researchers will be able to access non-identifiable aggregated data, to understand the variables associated with honeybee health and the local conditions exacerbating pollinator declines.

Women’s empowerment through technology design

To customize and localize the Beekeeper’s Companion together with the women beekeepers who would be using it, the project team conducted preliminary interviews to understand the day-to-day bee experiences, practices, and challenges of project beekeepers and then prototyped and tested the app interface, which incorporated women beekeeper’s knowledge. The prototype testing sessions enabled women beekeepers to interact directly with the app prototype to identify problems and areas of improvement early, so designers could make the necessary changes prior to development and build products that meet user needs and expectations. This process promoted feedback on the user interface and sharing of technical beekeeping information in users’ native language(s), which is one way to be gender-inclusive during technology design processes.

The project team was also sensitive to the times of day that were most convenient for testing. Through research, the team found that morning and early-afternoon interview times were most convenient for women participants and did not conflict with their schedules or pose a risk for women traveling back home after dark. During these sessions, the team promoted a non-judgmental environment where beekeepers felt safe and comfortable sharing their experience, knowledge, and personal beekeeping information; thus, the women beekeepers played a crucial role in improving the app and its functionality and localization. 

These interviews further served as a great opportunity for establishing a personable connection with the beekeepers and while the focus was on women, men were included in interviews because the app is available for use by all beekeepers, regardless of gender. Including men also amplified the gender-specific differences that might affect adoption or use of the app, which enabled the project team to address them during iterations of the prototype. The AID-CSB project and participatory design model helps raise awareness among men too and facilitates perceptual shifts and cultural norms around women and technology that will give women access to the tech they need. 

Given the project’s gender focus, project managers Laura Becker and Max Rünzel were invited to contribute to Germany’s Feminist Foreign Policy, providing recommendations on how the German government is uniquely positioned to address the gender digital divide and gender data gap through specific data collection activities and digital solutions. Max Rünzel represented the project at the Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy Conference in September 2022, exchanging ideas with stakeholders across sectors on how we can improve the status of women through policy.

Project Outcomes that Empower Women

Gender-responsive tech-enabled beekeeping thus unlocks a low-barrier economic activity that improves local biodiversity, crop yields, and the health of bee populations. These micro-entrepreneurship opportunities directly improve the users’ livelihoods while also building community, proving commercial viability, improving local biodiversity, enhancing opportunity independent of land ownership, and securing a place for women apiarists. By supporting healthy hive management practices in small-scale operations, the app also supports resiliency in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as beekeepers can access resources and knowledge wherever they are, even when in-person extension services are impossible. Access to such information can help women and their communities become climate-resilient by offering ways to adapt practices to new climatic realities.


About the author

Sarah-Beth Hopton is at Appalachian State University.