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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Forest honey in Zambia

  • Conservation & environment
  • Bees for Development
  • 1991
  • Article In Bfd Journal
  • text
  • English
  • Bees for Development Journal 20 41953 Text on this website

In the remote North Western Province of Zambia lies a great plateau covered by forest. Here the scattered villages are isolated clearings in the bush which stretches like a dark green ocean to the horizon. It is a region hardly touched by modern "development' where people live much as they always have done - by hunting fishing and growing crops.  

Certain tribes have specialised in beekeeping and use techniques that enable them to harvest honey and beeswax in harmony with the bees and the forest. It is remarkable that while African bees are generally feared for their stings traditional beekeepers do not need protective clothing because they know the laws by which bees recognise friend or foe.It is the traditional beekeepers together with their District Councils who have formed the North Western Bee Products Company to market their honey and wax throughout Zambia and abroad. This has encouraged beekeepers to increase production so they can purchase essential items like salt soap and blankets.Traditional beekeepingBeekeepers start learning at an early age when they travel with their grandfathers far into the bush to help with hive making. Hives are placed deep in the forest many miles from the villages. Hives made of the bark of particular trees are suspended high in branches to avoid army ants and honey badgers Each beekeeper usually owns about 100 hives but some own over 2000!
During the flowering season swarms of bees arrive to occupy the hives. After a couple of years the hives are ready to be cropped. Beekeepers and their helpers set up a bush camp where they stay for a few months gathering the honey and hunting. The evenings are spent around the camp fire drinking honey beer and telling stories. Harvested honey is transported many miles back to the village usually by bicycle along narrow forests paths. In the villages wax is separated from honey using simple press machines provided on loan by the Company. The honey is packed in plastic buckets ready for sale and the wax is purified by melting in boiling water and straining through a cloth. When the village beekeeping group chairman sees that most of the honey is ready he sends a messenger to the Company office in Kabompo to find out when a lorry can be sent to collect the honey. On marketing day all the beekeepers gather at the chairman's house with their buckets of honey and cakes of wax. There is great excitement as one by one beekeepers weigh their buckets and are paid. They can now buy essential commodities from the marketing team. Beekeeping is not just an income source it is a way of life. It is hard work and needs enterprise and initiative but it is a lifestyle which is rewarding on many levels.  
How are beekeepers organised? The Company tries to reach every group of beekeepers no matter how remote they are and the Company's vehicles travel to 300 isolated villages scattered over 75 000 km2.In this way the Company allows many more people to participate in beekeeping. As it is one of the only sources of cash income in this part of Zambia this makes a real difference in bringing commodities to the villages.
The Beekeepers' Association over 4000 Members holds 50% of the shares in the Company. In order to stimulate management initiative and ensure growth the Company operates independently and profitably. This strategy has proved successful - production has continued to expand This is a remarkable achievement given the difficult economic conditions which Zambia faces as a "Frontline State".In Zambia today the economic situation is so bad that it is very difficult to buy even the simplest imported item. Essential household items are only available at prices out of reach of the ordinary Zambian; outside cities they are not available at all. This also brings problems for companies as many materials and services are not available North Western Bee products needs to export a proportion of their honey and wax so that they can import spare parts for their vehicles.
ExportThe Company's honey is now being exported to Europe 54 tonnes in the last year. Attractive labels are used in the UK to encourage and Inform potential customers. Their purchases will help to safeguard the surival of Zambian forests.Honey buyers help preserve forests. Every jar of honey sold makes a contribution to the beekeepers family to the survival of their way of life and the preservation of the forest on which they depend. North Western Bee Products aims to strengthen village economies which have developed over centuries using materials harvested sustainably from the forest. Beekeepers have been producing large quantities of wax from these forests for at least 200 years. Wax was sold to Portuguese traders who established trade routes leading from the coast thousands of miles into the interior. The traders paid good prices for the wax and were able to purchase large amounts - similar quantities to those produced today. This proves that beekeepers' operations are sustainable over long periods of time. For forests to be preserved it is essentiaI that local people benefit from them by obtaining economic harvests. They do not want to stay in a reserve stuck with a way of life belonging to another century they want to combine traditional village life with some of the benefits of modern technology This can happen if their forest products are given appropriate value in the West. By bringing these products to the European market and explaining the unique features of the products to customers the value to village beekeepers is greatly increased.  
The information In this article was provided by David Wainwright of Tropical Forest Products Ltd. This Company was set up in October 1990 to enable the village people of tropical forests to find a market for their non-timber products in the West.[Bees for Development Journal #20]

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