In the comfortable style of an African mother, Sedo Ismael supports the youngest of her two children easily across her back as she goes about the endless tasks of a rural village woman. Nearby, bees buzz around a stand of yellow-painted hives, their labor, like hers, helping the Ismael family to weather another crippling season of food shortages here in their rural community in eastern Ethiopia.
"We received the beehives 3 years ago," says Sedo. "We used to produce honey using traditional beehives but people from HCS came along and convinced us to use an improved variety."
The faces of those from longtime Catholic Relief Services partner Hararghe Catholic Secretariat are familiar to many in eastern Ethiopia. HCS reaches more than two million people with projects ranging from water and sanitation efforts to safety net programs built around food distributions to people in need. A failed, short rainy season earlier this year meant farmers like Sedo and millions of others in Ethiopia lost their first food harvest.
Many planted a second crop in anticipation of the longer rainy season that typically begins in June. The rain, though, arrived weeks late across much of the country, setting the stage for a critical food shortage come harvest time in October.
"There was no rain during the short season," Sedo says. "How are we expected to grow anything?"
With more than 11 million* Ethiopians expected to require food assistance this year, it is a question many are asking. But thanks to improved beehives Sedo's family received through the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Integrated Livelihoods program, they are better able now to cope with future shortages. Longtime beekeepers, the family says the more productive variety of bees coupled with an improved hive design that encourages more honey production than traditional systems have increased their honey output.
"With our traditional hives, we produced 4.4 pounds of honey per every hive cycle," Sedo says. "With the new ones, we produce 11 pounds."
With the money the honey brings in, Sedo not only has enough to buy food for her family, but also to increase her household assets through the purchase of livestock. That gives her yet another tool to fight off future shortages, because goats and cows bring in revenue through milk production and breeding for meat. And the family can sell the animals for cash.
"We sell about 80 percent of what honey we produce," says Sedo. "With the cash we earned, I bought six goats. Previously, I had only three."
The goats have reproduced and Sedo and her husband now have 20 goats, a significant increase in the space of just 3 years. With less than an acre to farm, the honey is a critical asset during the recent years of sporadic rainfall. Like other families in their region, Sedo and her family face as many as 9 months of each year without adequate food—a trend CRS and HCS are countering with the Integrated Livelihoods program.
For Sedo, standing beside the hives outside of her small mud-walled home, the benefits bees bring have been dramatic.
"We used to cover just 2 or 3 months of our food," she says. "Now we can cover 6 months of our own food needs, which has improved since we improved our hives."
*This figure includes more than 7 million people the government identified as chronically hungry and more than 4 million recently identified as newly affected by the drought.
David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.