In May 2012 Stuart Andrews, our vice-chairman, and I went out to Hoima to help launch this project, the aim of which is to introduce the 108 members of ten women’s groups in Uganda’s Hoima District to the income-generating opportunities of modern beekeeping.
I was very much looking forward to this trip. During an exploratory visit a year earlier, I’d conducted some preliminary training at a residential workshop attended by the group leaders and had been most impressed. The ladies had been tremendously enthusiastic, quick to learn and – extremely important this – great fun to be with. The small CBO, Bigasa Sustainable Development Foundation (BISUDEF), which had suggested the project to us and is now responsible for implementing it, had also impressed me. I’d saddled them with organising the workshop, getting the ladies to it from their far-flung homesteads and arranging their accommodation and feeding — no easy assignments given African realities — and I was struck by the CBO’s efficiency and attention to detail. I could see it was going to be a pleasure working with Sam Kaheesi, BISUDEF’s young director, and his people.
One the project’s objectives is to make sure our members are able to sell their honey readily and at a fair price through a new buying & marketing scheme which BISUDEF will operate. So on our first morning, keen to get the venture up and running, Stuart and I set about the highly skilled and arduous task of providing BISUDEF with state-of-the-art processing and bottling apparatus. This we did by — and I hope I’m not about to overwhelm you with technicalities — drilling a hole in a food- grade bucket, screwing a tap into it and handing over the nylon strainer I’d brought out with me. Sam had already managed to buy a quantity of semi-processed honey from local beekeepers and within half-an-hour one of his staff was putting the equipment to good use.
The honey was left to settle for a few days, before the beneficiaries themselves bottled it and attached the attractive labels Sam’s team had designed. Forty-eight hours after that, jars of Family Life honey were on the shelves of local stores; and I gather that since then they have been selling like the proverbial hot cakes.
However, our main business in Hoima was a second workshop for the ten group leaders. They had performed so excellently during my earlier visit that we’d decided it should be they, rather than BISUDEF, who delivered the training to their members. So now it was a case of ‘training the trainers’.
Much of the four-day event was devoted to guiding the leaders on how best to present the basic principles of modern apiary and hive management they
themselves had learned the year before. In twos and threes they were assigned such topics as setting up an apiary and harvesting a hive. It was their job to devise a teaching strategy that would actively engage their audience and then use it to convey their information to the rest of us in a way that minimised the risk of our lapsing into catatonic insensibility. They sometimes chose to do this through role play of a (not always intentionally) hilarious kind.
We also wished to extend their own beekeeping skills by, for example, ensuring they could provide themselves with clean wax and add value to it. This took us on the by-no-means-uneventful journey from raw comb, to rendered wax, to lip balms and candles.
And we spent one morning on ways of getting bees into empty hives. I admit to having had an ulterior motive here. The session included the use of ‘catcher boxes’ to capture swarms and this gave me a good excuse to get the leaders making boxes for themselves. It’s always enjoyable to see African women trespassing on the male carpentry reserve, especially when they do it so well. The hives they’d improvised from sticks the previous year had been first rate, so nailing together a few bits of wood to make boxes gave them no trouble at all.
The workshop included an apiary visit, during which we left it to the ladies to open a couple of hives and explain what they were seeing. It was reassuringly obvious that they knew what they were about and were apparently quite fearless.
The group leaders are vital to the success of this project, not only because of the support they are giving their members through training and on-going advice and encouragement but because they have a key managerial role to play — most notably by distributing and controlling the inputs to their groups and by themselves monitoring how the project is faring. They are to meet regularly to review their progress towards attaining the targets and milestones that have been agreed and to recommend to BISUDEF how any difficulties they are facing might be tackled.
All this was made clear in our last session and when the ladies finally departed, they took with them not only their attendance certificates but, much more importantly, a real sense of project ownership.
It had been a happy and productive few days, punctuated by a great deal of dancing, singing and mutual leg-pulling. And there was more of the first two items the following day, when Stuart and I were driven out to meet some of the group members at their homesteads. By now I’m well used to Africa’s exuberant hospitality, but on this occasion the dances and songs of the children — some of whom cannot have been older than three — were very special.
Before we left Hoima, Sam, Stuart and I considered how Bees Abroad might continue its involvement with BISUDEF after this project notionally ends in a year’s time. One thing was very clear: if the achievements of the first twelve months — assuming there are some! — are to be sustained, our new beekeepers will require support for at least one more year. So a second phase might well take me to Hoima again next May; if it does, I really don’t think the prospect of spending more time with those delightful ladies will worry me too much.