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In the arid north of Kenya, Trinnie Cartland is preparing to scale up her organic acacia honey business. She tells me that local communities have been keen to work with her: many young people are looking for alternatives to livestock farming. There’s high demand for honey in Kenya, where prices are similar to those in Europe and beekeepers can make good money.

But Cartland’s ambitions are not only profit-based. She aims to use her business to reforest land that has been degraded by pastoralism.

More trees mean more forage, or food, for the bees. This results in richer honey harvests, providing a financial incentive for maintaining an ecosystem. When beekeeping is done properly, Cartland explains, “you end up restoring the environment”.

She is not alone in the belief that bee farming could be a successful conservation industry in sub-Saharan Africa – yet she’s one of the few exploring its full potential.

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Our need for bees is practical: bees and other pollinators support the food chain. “Some 80% of indigenous flowering plants in Africa benefit from honey bee pollination, and approximately one-third of all food produced is the result of commercial honey bee pollination,” says Mike Allsopp, a honey bee specialist at South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council.

Approximately one-third of all food produced in Africa is the result of commercial honey bee pollination – Mike Allsopp

To perform this service, bees need access to forage – and when they have this, farmers benefit. A recent paper by Byela Tibesigwa and co-authors revealed results that “magnify the documented benefits of forest conservation”: when studying smallholding farms in Tanzania, the researchers found that a decrease in natural habitats of wild pollinators between 2008 and 2013 “reduced crop revenue possibly by as much as 29% (mean) and 4% (median)”.

Many African countries have perfect conditions for commercial bee farming (Credit: Getty Images)

Free of harsh winters, many African countries have perfect conditions for commercial bee farming. “There are virgin, organic, lush territories,” enthuses Keith Smith of non-profit Bee Parks Trust. “I’m not trying to romanticise it – it’s just fact.” These are places where a profitable honey industry could flourish through proper training and access to market.

When you add that honey money to pollination services, you have an industry with a solid incentive to protect the habitats required by bees. As Charlotte Lietaer noted in her research article, “when people are aware about the valuable contribution of bees to the life of humans… they will respect bees and try to protect them, their habitat and forage area as much as possible.”

Bees can even be used to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.

“Beehive fences” have been successful in places where elephants and humans co-exist. A study in Kenya headed by Lucy King of Save the Elephants looked at hives which are positioned around a field of crops. When an approaching elephant disturbs the hives, it aggravates the bees – which prompts a hasty retreat.

In fact, King wrote, “80% of the elephants that approached the trial farms were kept out of the areas protected by the beehive fences.” A beekeeping villager not only benefits from honey and pollination services, but protection of their crops. And this, in turn, reduces retribution killings of wild animals. In addition, bee farming can provide a legal, stable and safe income alternative to wildlife poaching.

Perfect solution?

If beekeeping can protect honey bee populations, provide critical pollination services, help with wildlife restoration and protection and be a sustainable, lucrative business, it seems like the ideal eco-friendly industry.

But many scientists have problems with the honey bee becoming a symbol of conservation.

“I think it’s a bit of a red herring to claim that honey bees have potential for [global] conservation,” says Manu Saunders, a research fellow at the University of New England, Australia. “Wild pollinators [such as other bee species, flies, wasps, butterflies and moths] depend on the preservation of more diverse habitats than managed honey bees.”

It can be dangerous to make decisions based on the needs of one species – Manu Saunders

Saunders agrees that promoting the environmental benefits of honey bees might be useful in initially engaging people. Still, she says, “from a long-term conservation perspective, it can be dangerous to make decisions based on the needs of one species that may not translate to other relevant species.”

Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge, co-author of a paper entitled Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife, says his concern is that managed honey bees compete with other pollinators, putting wild species at risk.

Unlike honey bees in the Americas or Australia, African honey bees are native (Credit: Getty Images)

But, Geldmann says, “this might be true of everywhere except Africa”. That is because African honey bees and South Africa’s Cape honey bees are native – unlike the honey bees in the Americas or Australia.

“There’s an exchange between wild and managed bee populations,” explains Katherine Forsythe, a conservation biologist based in Cape Town. “You’re not introducing a species that will be in competition with other pollinators.”

Geldmann suggests that, bearing in mind that “lack of natural habitat is the biggest problem to biodiversity”, in sub-Saharan Africa, “the risk to wild pollinators might be minimised by the benefit to ecosystems.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, sub-Saharan Africa’s honey industry has potential for big economic returns. Typically, conservation and business do not go hand in hand. But that is changing: last year’s inaugural Business of Conservation Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, highlighted the urgent need for conservation to move from a series of philanthropic projects to an ethical, collaborative and business-minded industry.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s honey industry has the potential for big economic returns (Credit: Getty Images)

Beekeeping was cited as an example of a profitable conservation industry. But it must reach its full economic potential or there will not be a strong enough incentive for people to protect trees, for example, that might otherwise serve as charcoal or timber.

The opportunity is there. “There’s a world shortage of honey – especially organic,” Smith notes. The price of honey is high, as is international demand: Europeans consume an average of 0.7kg (1.5lb) of honey per year, and the EU is the world’s biggest importer, buying in around 200,000 tonnes (it is also the second biggest producer of honey after China).

Africa’s top honey-producing countries could earn an estimated $100 million (£76 million) per year with investment and innovation

Smith and Allsopp suggest Africa’s top honey-producing countries could earn an estimated $100 million (£76 million) per year with investment and innovation. Ethiopia – Africa’s biggest honey producer – currently makes 45,000 to 50,000 tonnes of honey a year, but a lot of that is used in local tej wine and less than 1,000 tonnes are exported. In Kenya, the National Farmers Information Service claims only 20% of the country’s honey-producing potential – estimated at 100,000 tonnes – is being tapped.

One company that has taken advantage of demand for high-quality honey is Hurters Honey, a family business and one of South Africa’s most successful honey producers, founded in 1978. Surrounded by swathes of coastal fynbos vegetation with the Atlantic Ocean roaring beyond white sand dunes, Hurters has an enviable spot in Langebaan, 90 minutes outside Cape Town. Their hives yield deliciously fragrant fynbos honey – a specialist product sold by Hurters alongside eucalyptus and orange blossom honey.

The price of honey is high, as is international demand (Credit: Getty)

Hurters owes its success to having ownership of the entire supply chain and working closely with, training and investing in beekeepers – but few other companies have been as business-minded in their approach.

Beekeeping in Africa is largely run by NGOs, which set up rural communities with basic equipment and then leave. There is not enough training and no access to market; within a couple of years, it’s common to find the equipment has been sold for cash or used as firewood.

            A lot can go wrong – Kerry Glen

Kerry Glen founded Ewaso River Honey in 1995, as more of a community project than a business, purchasing honey from people in northern Kenya. Glen says beekeepers are either unable to scale their operations or unwilling due to the costs of taking honey to market and the unpredictability of yields: “A lot can go wrong,” she says, using Kenya’s drought two years ago as an example.

Pesticide use on commercial farms is another problem. Hurters offers pollination services – another income stream for beekeepers – on litchi and orange farms in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. “We go in with 2,000 hives. We come out with about 200,” says Jacques Hurter, the founder’s son and until recently, the CEO of Hurters. “It’s killing off the trade.” Ernest Simeoni, owner of Nairobi-based African Beekeepers, also tells me he’s lost a lot of bees to pesticide use in Kenya: “It’s a serious problem,” he stresses, adding that it’s the same story in Tanzania.

Jacques Hurter left his CEO role last year to explore new ventures in Zambia and Malawi. His aim is to build a high-end Southern African honey brand. He has a site just outside Livingstone, Zambia, where he is setting up 1,000 Langstroth hives – the first of 200,000. There will be a processing plant at which outgrowers (contracted beekeepers) can drop off their honey, which Hurter will then buy and market. He will also provide training and funds for Kenyan top-bar hives, which are more commercial than the traditional bark hives.

A wave of new technology could help the industry overcome its challenges (Credit: Getty Images)

“If you want to do social upliftment, you need to be a partner in the business,” Hurter explains. This is where NGOs tend to fail. “In Zambia, that’s about helping the guys crop the proper quality – but then being the buyer as well. You give them the scope to expand, because you’ll pay them at the end of the day.”

Then there’s a wave of new technology on the horizon to drive this traditional industry into the modern age. Terence Chambati, a Zimbabwean based in Uganda, identified the lack of data in the industry, when he couldn’t even find a reliable figure for how much honey Uganda was producing.

He co-founded HuchiHive to start collating information and provide a tech-based approach to improve beekeeping. Their bee trackers – little “backpacks” for the bees – work out how far the bees are travelling and what they’re foraging, so farmers can plant the appropriate trees around their hives. Huchi smart-hives allow remote access to a beehive’s location, humidity, temperature, sounds and weight; the team are working on measuring pesticide residue, too. HuchiHive has just moved past the prototype stage and is now launching its pilot with 200 sites.

This approach to data capture will be crucial to managing the industry going forward, promoting investment and measuring the gains of bee farming against potential problems, such as risks to wild pollinators.

As conservation is challenged to become more profitable, well-managed bee farming in sub-Saharan Africa could become a pin-up for ethical industries – a business that protects a crucial pollinator, preserves forests, and provides sustainable income and business opportunities. A sweet deal, indeed.

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