Bees in the Warm Heart of Africa

Nkhata Bay Honey Producers Co-operative

Malawi is a country of exhilarating beauty. The people are welcoming and full of smiles. It is known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’. Formerly Nyasaland, Malawi is situated at the southern end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

The life of the country revolves around the vast, sparkling, expanse of Lake Malawi. At night the moon shimmers across the lake and it is full of lights as fishermen, in their precarious dugout canoes, struggle to make a living. In African terms the country is small, about the same size as England but with scant resources and a burgeoning population despite the prevalence of AIDS.

Malawi ranks among the world’s least developed countries. The UN Human Development Index grades Malawi as the 6th poorest country in the world. The economy is predominately agricultural. About 90% of the population live in rural areas and most of these people depend on subsistence agriculture. There are few other exploitable resources and the economy depends on substantial inflows of economic assistance. 54% of the 12 million people in Malawi live below the poverty line and there is a severe AIDS pandemic leading to very low life expectancy.  It is a densely populated country with a high rate of forest loss and a fragile environment seriously at risk of degradation as a result of population pressure and poor farming methods. Educational attainment is low, economic prospects are poor and women suffer continued discrimination.

In these difficult circumstances Bees Abroad are proud to be working with a vibrant, local initiative in the Nkhata Bay area of Northern Malawi representing the combined efforts of over 90 beekeeping groups – more than 1000 people – who are taking control of the means to improve their lives. NHPC Beekeeping Project is designed to help villagers to develop their bee farming so that people are able to improve both their income and their domestic food security.

Beekeeping is well suited to these areas and many people in Malawi are already excellent beekeepers. Bees are beneficial to the environment and can improve people’s lives in many ways. Beekeeping and related activities can also offer women a viable means to generate significant cash income. Honey is a high calorie, digestible foodstuff for sale or domestic use.

Secondary hive products such as beeswax and propolis provide additional income generation and the opportunity to develop effective, locally made medicinal products and are particularly suitable for women as it takes advantage of their traditional skills. Bee farming improves general food security within an area by encouraging the care of pollinating insects to improve the seed set and quality of crops. Tree planting for bee forage and the protection afforded to trees by keeping bees in them helps to preserve fragile soils from erosion, protects vulnerable forest ecosystems and encourages uptake of modern, multipurpose agroforestry. The natural miombo woodland in Northern Malawi produces a delicious, light coloured honey.

At the start of the project, the distance from the urban markets and lack of transport made it hard for the beekeepers to sell their honey for a good price – crazy in a place where people, are often hungry.  People were trading from a position of weakness in a buyers market. Sometimes unscrupulous traders cheated the beekeepers taking the honey never to return, so beekeepers lost both their crop and their precious honey storage containers. The local organisers were enthusiastic but had no idea what they could do to help.

What we set out to do was to create a co-operative marketing organisation that provided a convenient and honest outlet for beekeepers to sell their honey and provided beekeeping training. At the start of the project Bees Abroad (a UK beekeeping charity) provided seed corn capital to allow honey to be purchased from the villagers for immediate cash, to pay for honey storage and retail containers, as well as transport to collect and sell honey plus wages and overheads.

They later sponsored the development of a resource and packing centre, which has been built with love and care. It has a garden with fruit trees and crops where the project can keep its demonstration hives and a tree nursery, and SBDARA/NHPC have developed into a very hardworking commercial enterprise.

In 2007 the project was divided into two parts; the marketing organisation with the new name Nkhata-bay Honey Producers Co-operative (NHPC) – so that it could be legally registered as a co-operative – and the original Small Beekeepers Development and Research Association (SBDARA) which organises training.

A vehicle-hiring scheme set up in 2009 and funded personally by Pam Gregory of Bees Abroad, allows honey to be delivered more easily. Up to that point the honey was being delivered on the overcrowded and dangerous mini-buses. Can you imagine how difficult it is to travel on a bus with ½ tonne of honey?

The project has made some fantastic achievements. It has developed a centre of beekeeping excellence and village based field extension services. Experienced local people who can train and advise others in sustainable and profitable bee farming techniques staff the resource centre. A village-based programme of beekeeping training with 7 locally based beekeeping trainers and 2 community organisers has been established. The trainers have been trained in new beekeeping techniques and also in maximising the value of traditional methods. The trainers have been issued with bicycles and some have mobile phones so they can organise their work more efficiently.

They have also had their skills assessed using the British Beekeepers Association’s (BBKA’s) special scheme for helping African beekeepers to gain a formal beekeeping qualification. Three full time workers (Lenson, George and Lizzie) two night watchmen and two gardeners are also employed and the project serves as an outlet for up to 1000 bee farmers to sell their honey with about 250 regular and large-scale producers.

A small shop has been set up to sell locally made beekeeping equipment at affordable cost. Eventually it is hoped that it will be able to sell enough equipment to cover the wages of one of the workers at the project, which will enhance the sustainability of the shop. The project encourages the use of beneficial agroforestry trees and tree planting and promotes honey, wax and propolis products for medicinal use. The design of the project will enable it to eventually become self-financing in the long term. This project is growing in size and reputation and it is starting to form the basis of valuable social infrastructure facilitating further development initiatives in the region. A generous sponsor funded Lenson Simumba to attend college to gain some business management training and he hopes to complete his diploma next year. They also have regular American Peace Corps volunteers to helping with business development.

NHPC have developed the market for Forest Gold Honey from zero to 10 tonnes of honey annually in the space of 7 years. In this 2010/2011 season NHPC are expecting to raise the amount of honey sold to 20 tonnes with the aid of a soft loan from the Waterloo Foundation and they will be training another 50 beekeeping groups in 2011.

Getting to this point has been anything but smooth but it has been exciting – and frequently an appalling emotional roller coaster. Everyone was devastated when the project manager’s wife, Blessings Simumba, died in June. She was not yet 30 and died from complications after giving birth to twins last November leaving Lenson with a broken heart and 3 small children to care for. It would not have happened in Britain and makes us realise why we do this work.

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