How the business of bees contributes to sustainable development
Bees play a vital part in our natural ecosystems as they are responsible for the pollination of many fruit, nuts, vegetables and other species. For one thing, 100 crop species provide 90% of food worldwide and of those 71 species are pollinated by bees. Extremely high mortality rates of bees in Europe, America and Asia, however, are putting the balance at risk. For instance, each decade between 1-10% of the world’s biodiversity is lost, one of the factors being the decreasing bee population. (UNEP)
Africa is the only continent where the bee population remains stable and unaffected by emerging diseases. Yet, most African countries still import the majority of their honey for their domestic market. So why is the supply so low in Africa? Lack of knowledge about sustainable beekeeping methods, low honey yields, complicated market access for beekeepers and over-exaggerated export regulations hinder the honey bucket from overflowing. (FIBL)
Creating sustainable practices in Africa
Currently most African honey comes from ‘honey hunting’ rather than beekeeping. Trees with bee nests are either cut down or fire and smoke are used to get rid of the bees before the honey is harvested. Both methods destroy the entire colony, and smoking out bees can lead to wildfires. (FAO) In addition, the honey is generally boiled for conservation; which results in the loss of its nutritious value.
Nevertheless, harvesting of honey can be turned into a sustainable business with fairly few resources: with the right knowledge, skills and tools beehives can generally be made from local resources; land ownership is not essential, as the hives only take up little space; and bees do not need to be fed as they collect nectar and pollen from the surrounding areas. At the same time, there is an increasing awareness that beekeeping should be centred around the needs of the bees, using indigenous bees and techniques appropriate for each location and without the use of harmful pesticides in order to achieve truly sustainable practices.
Training is key to success
Unsurprisingly, smallholder farmers are generally keen to take up beekeeping as it requires few resources and has the potential to provide a stable source of income. However, what is needed for success is knowledge on the making of beehives, on locations to set them up, and on harvesting methods. Two 2014 SEED Winners, which are realising the potential of beekeeping for sustainable development, have therefore made training a key component of their business models.
Honey Products Industries, a start-up founded in 2011 in Malawi, trains young people to own and operate business outlets located in specific geographical locations via a franchise model. These outlet managers provide beekeeping equipment and training to local smallholder farmers. The raw honey is collected, tested for quality and purchased by the outlets. The honey is then transported to the factory for processing, where it is labelled and finally distributed to community stores’ shelves.
In the remote community of Mutondu in northern Mozambique, Pro-Sofala Verde enables families from this community to become beekeepers, with so far 31 community members and their families trained. Local beekeepers act as ‘honey mentors’ and provide expert advice on bee maintenance and hygienic harvesting techniques. Pro-Sofala Verde buys the high-grade honey from the community at above market prices, which is then processed, packaged and marketed.
Reaching Triple Bottom Line (TBL) impacts
Environmental impacts: In both cases, the SEED Winners are contributing to the conservation of biodiversity by preserving and even increasing the bee population. The activities further contribute to natural resource conservation as trees are no longer felt or burned for honey hunting. Moreover, communities are sensitised to the value of nature.
Economic impacts: Beekeeping also provides a sustainable source of income, in areas where often few income opportunities exist. In the case of Honey Product Industries not only are income opportunities generated for smallholder farmers, but also to young entrepreneurs, who are trained to run their outlets in remote locations.
Social impacts: By receiving (additional) income, beekeepers can then improve their family members’ health and education opportunities. Besides, in the case of Pro-Sofala Verde, the honey is sold in small straws, ensuring that even Mozambique’s poorest can afford to buy the nutrient-rich doses of honey.
Creating favourable conditions for African sustainable beekeeping to thrive
In essence, sustainable beekeeping enterprises can play an important role in achieving sustainable development as it offers livelihood opportunities and generates income at the bottom of the pyramid while contributing towards food security and towards the conservation of biodiversity. Nevertheless, they face some significant challenges that we need to help them overcome.
Experience has shown that competition with other ‘conventional’ businesses can pose serious challenges, as those can often offer honey at lower prices. Yet, their products tend to be of lower quality as the honey is boiled, hence destroying nutrients, or diluted with sugar water. Establishing a certification body that officially recognises the positive social and environmental impacts of sustainably produced honey could provide a viable solution that would allow social and environmental start-ups to distinguish themselves from conventional competitors.
At the same time, sustainable beekeepers are repeatedly faced with a lack of awareness from local customers about eco-friendly products and the nutritional value of high-quality honey. While the awareness-raising campaign would address this issue, those tend to be very expensive and time-consuming. A solution to increase not only sustainable honey production but also consumption is to partner with local NGOs, media or government agencies. With their broad and extensive networks, they can help advocate the environmental and social advantages of sustainably produced honey to the broader public.
Exporting to European and American markets, where customers are increasingly valuing honey produced in an eco-friendly manner, could offer an alternative to domestics markets, however, those often remain out of reach for African producers. Complex import regulations and processing standards for natural products such as honey are hard to navigate and fulfil for small enterprises. Improving access to information, developing adequate guidance and facilitating exchange with relevant partners are amongst the most important enablers that could help African start-ups access those foreign markets to scale up.