Ekye Beekeepers Union – changing lives for fishing and farming families

Trisha Marlow, volunteer Partnership Manager for Ghana, explains the background to the selection of this community for funding.

First Impressions

After two days’ travel south on local transport, the stifling heat and bouts of torrential rain in northern Ghana are already a distant memory. I meet up with Michael – my regional trainer – who has come from the capital, Accra. We charter a taxi from Nkawkaw. The road is surprisingly good, but the winding section up to Kwahu Ridge is a daunting and dangerous challenge for the dozens of truck drivers with over-laden charcoal trucks and wagons piled with yams, maize and other goods. We are heading now for Adawso and from there catch the late afternoon “pontoon” (ferry) to Ekye-Amanfrom.

As we drive, Michael brings me up to date with the challenges faced in Ekye. I am already aware of the harsh issues with the fishing industry. Incomes are dropping and child slavers* on the lake are being sentenced. But that means that some small children will now drop out of school to help their male relatives, doing the most dangerous jobs. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Afram Plains some farmers are doing very well with introduced irrigation and improved seeds transforming their lives – but not here. Health issues from the lack of a balanced diet continue. If we can succeed with beekeeping all this could change with hard currency and improved pollination. And we are a determined team.

From Ekye, the Volta Lake Transport Company’s ferry carries harvests from the fertile Afram Plains across the 1 ¾ mile expanse of the River Afram en route to Accra. The river is now subsumed into Lake Volta, the world’s largest artificial reservoir covering an area half the size of Wales! And so, as the sun sets we reach Ekye and finally stumble across our guesthouse amid the maze of small houses to the left of the road. The power is out and remains so for most of our visit with heavy tropical downpours dictating our schedule. Procuring food in the evenings under these circumstances is twice as hard with the street vendors unable to sell in the open and solar torches faltering.

Ekye is in fact two adjoined communities with people from at least six tribes, and also Muslims and Fulani herders. Passing through as a tourist, the villagers might appear to be relatively well off. The smarter, painted, wooden “canoes”, powered by outboard engines, are moored by the ferry slipway. Women sell a variety of locally smoked fish by the shore, a tailor’s shop is a hive of activity, a well-stocked general store has expensive roller shutters, other small food businesses line the road. As night falls, the go-to “spot” for a cool beer fills with often fashionably-dressed youths, with coloured flashing lights and (the only local) generator for when the power fails, as it does, often.

But venture off the tarred road and the stark contrast of the lives of the fishermen who scrape an income from the lake is readily obvious. Many of the mud-built, often single room, family houses are in very poor repair. Erosion is obvious causing subsidence and much of the land is held together with discarded fishing nets. Sanitation is limited and piglets rootle amongst the litter while children play. Income from fishing is steadily falling – they blame climate change, but, whether climate change or over-fishing matters little when it is your living and there are families to feed.

If you take time to visit the market stalls near the quay, even the essential tomatoes, chilli and onions for everyday cooking for sale are in poor condition, and an indication that few vegetables are grown locally. To us it seems unbelievable that healthy green vegetables and fruit are not in abundance near the lake, but it all comes down to economics. Although a fortunate few farmers in the Afram Plains districts can now take advantage of both larger and more productive farms thanks to irrigation pumps and improved seeds this is still an unattainable dream for most of Ekye’s subsistence farmers. Beekeeping will not only boost pollination and harvests, it can provide hard currency for irrigation equipment and a route to better health.

The Assessment

Emerging after the storm the following morning, Michael and I locate simple breakfasts and then meet up with some of the members of Ekye Beekeepers Union (EBU). A needs assessment is a vital part of any potential project – finding out all the facts we need to know to see if the project should succeed coupled with finding out what the potential participants want from us. In the frame also are the impact the project could have, the hard facts of potential business growth and productivity, the overcoming of any obvious challenges at this early stage and ensuring that donor funds are optimally spent. This is, as with all parts of the project ahead, a partnership activity. Michael can speak freely in the local language and pick up things I cannot while ensuring we hear all the participants wish to say, and will be responsible for practical and theory training and much more besides.

Meeting with the executive of EBU I am struck by their drive and enthusiasm. Piecing together strands of beekeeping education from high school agricultural classes and from trial and error – especially risky with “hot” African bees – a very few have accumulated some hives. As luck would have it there is a promising apiary site, “a mile by a mile” of dense small trees of species mainly suited to bees and honey. We travel along with paths to the site by “market truck” (a trailer with motorbike at the front) and discuss supplying water for colonies in the dry season. No problem they say, and I believe them. After assessing many potential groups, a buzz of sustained enthusiasm and the feel of a competent executive are indicative of rapid progress. This feels good.

Back in the community we discuss course participation – should we gain funding. Giving this project a secure and dynamic start will mean yet another few thousand pounds to be raised, a challenge in itself. Here, there are single mothers, fishermen, young educated men who will be lost to insecure, menial jobs in Accra the capital unless they can earn enough locally, other youth both male and female struggling to complete their education. We can make a difference here. Our Partnership Managers are usually expert beekeepers and have access to over 20 years of practical experience and success working in challenging environments.

Even better my newest trainer, Michael, is not only a bee farmer and equipment trader, but an effective role model. Michael built up his business from nothing as a teenager so he could complete his school education, but he also knows the community and has already has their trust. And so the seeds of a project are sown, and, in time, a tangible difference can be made here with honey money. Imagine improved diets and attainment through being able to purchase the infrastructure for even modest market gardens along the shore, pollinated, of course, at least in part by honeybees. Imagine reduced fishing and children being in school rather than at grave risk on the water.

And you can help. Just a few pounds – the price of a high street coffee and cake – towards this project will help boys like Simon, now 18, who began school just last year after helping his father fish throughout his childhood, to complete his education and secure his future.

*Until very recently, some fishermen here were guilty of using child slaves to work on their boats as elsewhere on the Lake, an unbelievably dangerous and unacceptable practice, but specialist NGOs the police and the navy are working hard to drive through prosecutions and heavy fines to end the practice. Providing alternative or additional incomes – through beekeeping for example – are critical in this fight because otherwise some fishermen will be forced to pull their own young children out of school to help instead.