Ekye Beekeepers Union – changing lives for fishing and farming families

Beekeeping for Livelihoods, Lake Volta

Trisha Marlow, Partnership Manager, explains the process of project selection for funding

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. Dozens of truck drivers ascend with over-laden charcoal trucks and wagons piled with yams, maize and other goods. We are heading now for Adawso to catch the late afternoon “pontoon” (ferry) to Ekye-Amanfrom. The aim: to review beekeeping for livelihoods here on Lake Volta.

The Ekye ferry pontoon which serves Afram Plains, Ghana

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 for livelihoods here on Lake Volta all this could change with hard currency and improved pollination. And we are a determined team.

Ekye-Amanfrom, Lake Volta

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 part of Lake Volta the world’s largest artificial reservoir,  and covers 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 consists of two adjoined communities with people from at least six tribes, 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.

Many young boys help with the dangerous work of fishing

Improving Livelihoods

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 causing subsidence with much of the land 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. Whether climate change or over-fishing matters little when it is your living and there are families to feed.

A local house in poor repair - beekeeping income improves livelihoods

If you take time to visit the market stalls near the quay, even the essential tomatoes, chilli and onions are in poor condition. This is 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. However, it all comes down to economics. A few farmers in Afram Plains now have larger and more productive farms due 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 Livelihoods Assessment

Emerging after the storm the following morning, Michael and I locate simple breakfasts. Then we meet up with some of the members of Ekye Beekeepers Union (EBU) for the needs assessment, 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. I need to consider potential impact of the project, potential business growth and productivity. We need to overcome obvious challenges at this early stage to ensure that donor funds are spent optimally. This is, as with all parts of the project ahead, a partnership activity. Michael speaks the local language and this ensures that we hear all the participants wish to say. He will be responsible for practical and theory training and much more besides.

I am struck by the drive and enthusiasm of the EBU executive. Taking strands of beekeeping education from high school agricultural classes and trial and error, a very few have some hives. The sometimes hot-tempered African bees makes this extra risky. 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 dusty 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.

Local women bring the washing from Lake Volta to Ekye

Beekeeping on Lake Volta

Back in the community we discuss course participation – should we gain funding. We will need to raise a few thousand pounds to give this project a secure and dynamic start – a challenge in itself. Here there are single mothers, fishermen, and young educated men. Many face insecure, menial jobs in Accra unless they can earn enough locally. Youths, both male and female, are struggling to complete their education – we can make a difference here. Our Partnership Managers are usually expert beekeepers with access to over 20 years practical experience working in challenging environments.

Even better my newest trainer, Michael, is not only a bee farmer and equipment trader, but an effective role model. He built his business from nothing as a teenager to complete his school education, but he also knows the community and has already has their trust. The seeds of a project are sown, and, in time, a tangible difference can be made here with honey money. Imagine improved diets from 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. Beekeeping for livelihoods on Lake Volta will change lives.

Simon, a local youth, considers beekeeping for his future livelihood

And you can help. Donating the price of a high street coffee and cake towards this project will help boys like Simon. Simon began school just last year at 17 after helping his father fish throughout his childhood. Beekeeping is the key to completing his education and securing his future.

Lake Volta – Income for Change

*Until very recently, some fishermen here were using child slaves to work on their boats as elsewhere on the Lake. This is an unbelievably dangerous and unacceptable practice. Specialist NGOs, the police and the navy are working hard to drive through prosecutions and heavy fines. Providing alternative or additional incomes – through beekeeping for example – are critical in this fight. Otherwise some fishermen must pull their own young children out of school to help instead. With beekeeping for livelihoods on Lake Volta, the focus of income will change, and children will be both far safer and complete school.