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By Horst Wendorf
Horst Wendorf is a German sociologist who has worked with beekeeping projects in Zambia for eight years.
In the North Western Province, beekeepers (using bark hives) have been helped to improve their honey processing and get their products on to the international market. They have been encouraged to form an Association and become decision-making participants in an established marketing company.
In Copperbelt Province there is limited tradition in beekeeping and increasing woodland depletion. Here top-bar hive beekeeping has been introduced as an alternative to excessive honey hunting. In this article Horst argues that this, together with good marketing of diverse products, provides a way forward. This article continues a debate from B&D37 and B&D39.
“Make money from beeswax and honey” is the motto of the Forestry Department in Zambia. Indeed, a great number of small-scale farmers in the vast woodlands of Zambia follow this approach. But this is not new. For many generations honey hunting, (the collection of honey from wild bees’ nests), and bark hive beekeeping have been part of village life. The Portuguese influence during the pre-colonial period gave honey production a great boost, because a good market for beeswax was created. Beeswax became one of the most important commodities for trading and cash income. Export figures have never again reached the same levels they enjoyed during the colonial period.
Only a small quantity of honey is eaten by the beekeeper’s family. Most is used for brewing the honey beer “mbote” used in celebrations, for barter, and paying for help with agriculture. Beekeeping plays a vital role in the social, cultural and economic environment of the rural population, as Eleanor Fisher described in B&D39.
The North Western Province emerged as the “Honey Province” of Zambia, because of its historical tradition of beeswax trade, its close proximity to Angola, its remoteness, and its vast “untouched” miombo woodlands. However, tremendous changes in the lifestyles of the people have happened because of intervention from outside.
First it was the penetrating money economy, which created a commodity market. Then the mines in the Copperbelt made Zambia one of the most urbanised countries in Africa with 50% of the population living in towns. The labour migration to the mine areas deprived the rural areas of male-dominated economic activities. The population concentrated along the new roads, leaving the former basis of their livelihood as a remote area. The introduction of schools prevented children from participating in hunting and gathering techniques. Economic opportunities created an atmosphere of dedication to “modern life”, with desire for jobs and consumer goods.
Beekeeping was also subject to new influences. The erosion of traditional values has led to theft becoming the main problem for beekeepers. This was inconceivable when “magic” protected bee hives in remote locations. The custom of practising beekeeping in camps is on the decline (if it has not already disappeared). No wild animals are left to hunt, and with increasing mobilisation and communication, people tend to participate in other social or economic activities.
Young people in particular are unwilling to continue conventional activities and would rather wait for any other opportunity to make money. In areas where population pressure leads to large settlements with more intensive agriculture and other strains on natural resources, the basis for bark hive beekeeping diminishes, as the big and straight trees that were used for bark hives disappear.
These are just a few examples of the way in which Zambia, like many other southern African countries, is affected by the integration of the international community and the world market, by impacts of the Structural Adjustment Programme, declining prices of raw materials like copper, and many other factors.
The local method of using bark hives can only be sustainable as long as no radical changes emerge in the social, cultural and economic environment. However, the technology has not been altered by the people themselves, in spite of the transformations happening. The bark hive method requires a high input of labour and the economic result is usually poor.
Although beekeepers are used to working without protective clothing many hives are not cropped because of the defensiveness of bees. Most of the hives are placed far from the beekeepers’ homes, at distances ranging from 6 to 30 km. Usually only one 20 litre honey container can be carried back to the village for marketing. All these constraints mean that many beekeepers do not harvest and supervise their hives regularly.
Honey does not play such a big role in the food self-sufficiency of the local people but is rather an income source for them, predominately through the brewing of honey beer. Honey beer is of a perishable nature. The mixture of unripe honey, brood and pollen is even desired because it boosts fermentation. Although beer brewing is an important income generator, the output is limited to remote areas with few customers. The market is confined to adjacent villages and the beer has to be consumed the same day.
Marketing of honey from bark hives, which is often attempted in development projects, faces various problems. In the North Western Province it is estimated that 15,000 beekeepers exist, having on average 73 bark hives.
In the implemented beekeeping development project, millions of dollars have been spent in training small-scale beekeepers in improved cropping techniques. Certainly the share of marketable honey has increased during the period. The honey which is exported to the organic grade market in Europe is reprocessed with sophisticated machinery. After 17 years of support from donors the annual quantity of honey purchased is about 100 tonnes, and the profits of the established company are not really encouraging. This is not amazing because to clean honey locally in bulk is too expensive if sophisticated machinery has to be imported. Experiences in the Copperbelt project have shown that without this massive donor support approximately 20% of the purchased honey can be sold as table honey.
The quality demanded by customers abroad is therefore restrictive to exports. With the emergence of liberalised economies in many southern African countries and stiff competition in the regions’ markets, more customers become aware of quality standards. On the shelves of Zambian supermarkets, table honey from commercial beekeepers in South Africa competes with local collected honey, which frequently looks cloudy, ferments in the jars and has a bitter taste caused by too much pollen. The price paid to farmers for such honey rarely exceeds 0.25 US$ per kilogram.
On the other hand the overall economic situation for small-scale farmers in Zambia looks bleak. Mass poverty in the rural areas is on the increase. Food production is on the decrease coinciding with high population growth. Other indicator standards: health, education, and nutrition, are falling. Under these circumstances what role have development projects to play?
The results of projects which intended to introduce modern beekeeping technologies, particularly frame hives, are not encouraging. Constraints given are usually: trainers do not have the necessary knowledge; equipment has to be imported; honey yields are too low; investment is higher than output; the target group is not interested; technology is too difficult and complex.
The discouraging results experienced in many beekeeping projects fortified some experts to revitalise local ways of beekeeping and to condemn the introduction of modern ways. There is certainly a need to maintain people’s diversified livelihood strategies where “traditional” beekeeping plays a vital part in identity and culture. Where the local way of beekeeping is practised intensively, and the ecological conditions are still favourable, top-bar hive beekeeping or any alternative technology has little chance to be adopted.
The reason for this is not the desire by the majority of farmers to stick to their local way of beekeeping, but rather the constraints mentioned above prevent them from changing. So why not leave those people who wish to maintain their local way but offer alternatives to those who want to change, or have never done any beekeeping?
One solution has been found in diversifying bee products for the local market. The support programme in the Copperbelt region has shown ways a dual approach can work. Honey from bark hives is mainly brewed into bottled wine under commercial conditions, beeswax candles are made for the gift industry. The emphasis is put on training farmers in top-bar hive beekeeping, to deliver top-class, quality honey to the supermarkets and gain much more for their honey.
The liberalised economy in Zambia supports private business. The established beekeeping enterprise is linked to the top-bar hive beekeepers and runs its own extension staff. Manufacture of top-bar hive equipment has started. The interest, especially from commercial farmers, is encouraging. Once such an industry is established, the technology has a better chance to spread to small-scale farmers.
[Bees for Development Journal #43]