North West Bee Products in Zambia is a producer-owned honey business well known to many readers of BfD Journal. Articles about its developments first appeared in BfDJ 17.
Honey from this successful exporting company first arrived in UK shops in the late 1980s. Zambian honey has a very different taste to honey produced in Europe, and at first, British people were not used to the unusual flavour. That has changed however and now people in the UK are buying Zambian honey in ever increasing quantities. Zambian honey has paved the way for African honey to enter the UK market: it should be easier for others to follow.
However, North West Bee Products (NWBP) remains a unique enterprise in Africa, being the only Fair-trade Labelling Organisation (FLO) and organic certified honey business exporting honey to the UK. The challenges and successes of this business are therefore of great interest.
Bees for Development met with Bob Malichi, the Director of NWBP, at the Apitrade Africa meeting in Tanzania in February 2007. We took the opportunity to ask him about recent news, and learn more about how he ensures that the honey they harvest is of export quality.
BfD: Bob, can you tell us about developments at NWBP over the last five years?
Bob Malichi: The number of registered beekeepers supplying NWBP has risen to 6,500 and the quantity of honey supplied to NWBP has risen from 150 to 280 tonnes per year. NWBP buys only the best quality honey and so this figure does not account for total production: second grade honey is sold to other buyers including beer brewers. Another notable development is the increasing number of women beekeepers, and there are now ten groups in the area who supply honey to NWBP. Women prefer to use top-bar hives whereas the predominant hive type in this part of Zambia remains the bark hive, hung in trees to prevent attack by ants and honey badgers.
BfD: What do beekeepers earn by selling honey to NWBP?
Bob Malichi: The beekeepers are able to buy much needed blankets, salt, soap and bicycles. Incomes earned vary, with the most successful beekeepers earning around £750 (US$1,495; €1,105) a year, although £100 (US$200; €150) would be more typical.
BfD: Where is your main market?
Bob Malichi: We sell almost all our honey to the UK. This is this reason we buy only the best quality honey from the beekeepers. All our honey is sourced from the 75,000 km2 of miombo woodland which has been certified as organic by the UK organic certifying body, The Soil Association. The beekeepers never use pesticides, agricultural chemicals or medicines for bees, which means the honey produced is totally free from residues of medicines, and of the highest quality. It is important that harvesting and handling are carried out well to ensure the honey is not contaminated or adulterated after cropping. To ensure proper techniques, NWBP employs 30 extension workers to train the beekeepers.
BfD: It is sometimes thought that top quality honey cannot be harvested from bark hives. How do you ensure high quality is maintained?
Bob Malichi: 95% of our honey is harvested from bark hives and it easily meets international standards. When cropping, minimal smoke is used at the door end of the hive to encourage the bees to move to the opposite end of the hive. Then the smoker is put to one side to avoid any ash or further smoke getting near to the honeycombs. The grass door of the hive is opened and accessible honeycombs are removed carefully to avoid too much breakage. The combs are sorted immediately into different clean buckets – the best quality honeycombs are put in separate buckets from the combs with pollen or under-mature combs. The buckets are sealed with tight-fitting lids so no dust can enter.
BfD: Are there different styles of bark hives?
Bob Malichi: Yes the beekeepers from Kapombo make the hive entrances at the ends whereas those from Mwinilunga make the entrances at the sides. Beekeepers from each area believe their styles are the best. See article
BfD: How is the honey extracted from the comb?
Bob Malichi: The beekeepers extract honey from the comb at home using simple - and more importantly - cheap, home-processing equipment such as cloths, buckets and sieves. The extension workers also train the beekeepers how to clean and care for this equipment to make sure the extraction process does not permit any contamination of the honey. One important instruction is that the processing equipment should be used only for honey and never for other household uses at other times of year. Once separated, the honey and beeswax can be sold independently which means beekeepers have a better opportunity to earn income from both products.
BfD: How is the honey collection organised?
Bob Malichi: NWBP buys honey from many villages, some up to 100 km from the NWBP factory. At a pre-arranged time the beekeepers must carry the buckets of honey to the roadside, from where NWBP will come to collect and buy. The beekeepers know that honey must not be heated or the quality deteriorates, and so they make sure it is stored in a cool place at home and in shady places at the roadside. When NWBP comes to collect the honey they check each and every bucket by measuring moisture content and colour. Top quality honey is accepted whilst any contaminated or poor quality honey is rejected. Rejected honey can be used by the beekeeper for food or beer making at home, or they can sell it to others.
BfD: Thank you Bob – we wish you and NWBP every success in the future.
First published in Bees for Development Journal #83