The modern honey hunters of Kenya

By Nicola Kelly

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bees depositing honey in a beehive

At an upmarket cafe in Nairobi, trendy millennials swipe through their smart phones while sipping glasses of "dawa", a hot drink made from locally sourced honey, ginger and lemon.

"I drink this every evening before I go to bed," Immanuel, 26, explains. "It prevents me from getting sick and it calms me down at the end of the day. Honey is like a medicine - it has a lot of healing properties."

Here in the heart of Kenya's "Silicon Savannah", tech-savvy entrepreneurs are beginning to tap into a market that, until recently, was the preserve of smallholder farmers known locally as honey hunters.

Image caption,
The modern technology being introduced is expected to sanitise the honey extraction method

For them, the introduction of new hives and modern harvesting methods mark an unwelcome shift away from the traditions passed down through the generations.

But entrepreneur Ernest Simeoni says the honey hunters will need to adapt their practices if they are to make the most of the honey industry, now worth more than $12bn (£10bn) globally.

"Honey has become fashionable in Kenya - it's like a craze sweeping across the country. Many young people here are starting to realise there's a lot of money to be made from food."

Technology meets agriculture

Mr Simeoni believes the rise of the middle class in Kenya, coupled with advances in digital technology, have made honey production accessible to a wider pool of people.

"Farming with apps - this is the future," he says, pointing to more than 20 icons on his phone.

One of the most popular is the "Swarm Database", an app that provides real-time information and alerts farmers when their honey is ready to harvest. WhatsApp groups are also helping young Kenyan farmers to share ideas and experiment with new methods of honey production.

Image caption,
Modern honey hunter Ernest Simeoni fetches honey from a barrel in his factory

But, Mr Simeoni explains, there are still a number of obstacles to overcome. He says that methods of honey production in Kenya need to be modernised.

"Crude methods of extracting the honey from cavities in the trees, keeping it in dirty containers and over-heating it in refinery rooms - this has a damaging effect on the quality, driving down our profits."

Grace Asiko from the National Beekeeping Institute, an affiliate of the Ministry of Livestock and Agriculture, agrees that more can be done to tap the honey market.

"It's a goldmine, ready to exploit. What we need are new innovations to capitalise on the different bee species and variety of plants and herbs we have in Kenya."

Adding value

Diversifying the ways in which the honey can be used is also an area of potential growth, she says.

"We need people from the pharmaceutical and nutrition sectors to come over and see what we have. Collective effort with innovators will help us to ascertain how the honey can be used to make more products like the face creams, massage bars we have developed recently."

High up in the Taita Hills of south-east Kenya, nestled among macadamia and pineapple plantations, the picture is very different for Hagai Mwaisaka, a traditional honey hunter.

Hagai is one of nearly two million honey producers in this part of the country.

Image caption,
Traditional honey hunter Hagai Mwaisaka points to the log he uses as a beehive
Image caption,
Honey is big business in this part of Kenya

He points proudly at the log hive - a debarked, hollow tree stump - swaying gently in the breeze in the acacia tree outside his hut.

"This hive was handed down to me by my father and, like him, the honey I produce is a large part of my income. I can say that the bees help me to feed my family."

Honey hunting is the traditional method of climbing trees, tipping the log hive at an angle and allowing the honey to drip through the combs. It is typically done at night without clothes to ensure that bees do not stick to the fabric and sting the skin beneath.

"At night, the bees are cool. They are not so active, so I can harvest the honey without disrupting them," Mr Mwaisaka explains.

From this one log hive, 40,000 busy bees will produce 60kg of honey each year. Mr Mwaisaka will be able to sell this honey for $10/kg - enough to sustain his family.

Modernising honey extraction

But this may all be about to change. The new hives being introduced by businessmen in Nairobi mean that honey hunters will soon be required to change their methods, "smoking out" the bees rather than extracting and combing the honey by hand.

For traditional honey hunters like Mr Mwaisaka, the new methods will have a detrimental effect on the quality of the honey.

"The bees travel very far from our log hives to find the best flowers, so the honey is sweet and golden. But with the new methods, the bees get lazy. They produce a lot less and the taste is bitter."

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Honey production is the latest money-making venture for businessmen

Unfortunately for Mr Mwaisaka and other farmers in this part of Kenya, there is little that can dampen the spirits of traders and innovators in Nairobi.

Businessman Ernest Simeoni believes the honey industry is the next big money-making venture.

"There is huge potential for the honey industry to grow in Kenya and internationally. We just need to focus on modernising our methods to open up the market. From there, the future looks bright."

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