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Shubina, the bee-keeper of Kashmir

India, June 16, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Janice Yaden/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Opening a hive to harvest honey. Photo: Janice Yaden/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Janice Yaden/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shubina and one of her children. Photo: Janice Yaden/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Janice Yaden/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shubina harvests honey from one of her hives. Photo: Janice Yaden/Mercy Corps

The upper Kashmir Valley, lined by the foothills of the Himalayas, is an idyllic spot for raising honeybees. Saffron and mustard flowers, apple blossoms and acacia blanket the valley.

In such an inviting landscape, you would expect to find farmers raising honeybees — not just for the value of the pollination, but also to sell the honey. But, when Mercy Corps assessed this largely impoverished area, they found this was not the case.

So, why aren’t there bees? There are. But they are the wild bees found naturally in the Valley, their honey inferior and small in volume. Putting two and two together: a lack of honeybees and an abundance of flowers needing pollination, Mercy Corps' Bees for Business Project was born.

Today 50 new young entrepreneurs are beginning their honeybee business with the support of Mercy Corps Kashmir. Located in two main areas of North Kashmir, each group is made up of 10 members who work together as a team tending the bees. Later, they will also sell their honey as a team, splitting the profits.

The hives are owned by the individual members of the group, but the branded product is co-owned. While most of the members are male, two are female. Shubina, age 21, is one of them. She told me her story.

Shubina dropped out of school in 10th grade, unable to afford the yearly cost — and besides, she was needed as an extra hand for her family. A few years back, she was selected to be part of a self-help handicrafts group established by a non-governmental organization in her village. It wasn’t long before she took a leadership role and began helping the group market their work directly to retail shops, cutting out the middle man who was “taking too much of the profit,” she explained.

Then, in 2010, another prospect came along. This time it was called "Bees for Business," and Mercy Corps was supporting the project. She eagerly joined the group of hopefuls and eventually won one of the 10 competitive slots for her village to get the training and materials necessary to start a bee-keeping business.

The 60 hives have now arrived for her group, as well as the superior Italian bees and bee-keeping equipment. The group placed them on community land next to a small shrine, which the members believe will help provide them with good fortune.

Today Shubina is the secretary of the ten-person business group. The members take turns tending the bees. Shubina’s turn was Friday but she got a chance to work in a rice field for a daily wage so traded with another member. Bee-keeping will be part-time like the other enterprises she is involved in.

“You have to do a lot of things to be successful,” she explained. She admits that time-management is sometimes difficult.

Shubina’s family is proud of her. Mom says the other siblings help out when they can. Shubina, herself, states her life’s goal: “I want to be a role model for other girls.”

Shubina is smart, hard-working and understands opportunity when it comes knocking — so I'm betting that wish will come true.