By Mike Embrey and Bill Lord, USA
Mick Embrey and Bill Lord are extension specialists in the USA states of Maryland and North Carolina respectively. In 2001 Michael and Bill worked with the Farmer-to-Farmer project in Turkmenistan assisting beekeepers. The project is financed by Winrock International (USA).
Turkmenistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is a desert country in Central Asia with summer temperatures soaring as high as 50°C. The main agricultural product is cotton, and it is also the source of most of the honey. During Soviet times all honey produced was shipped elsewhere for processing and distribution. Therefore, even though beekeepers take great care of their hives, they have little experience in processing, packaging, or sale of honey. Beekeepers need to learn processing and marketing skills so they can sell honey and increase their incomes, which average about US$30 per month. Winrock International requested us to provide technical assistance in honey processing and marketing. Because of the repressive political climate in Turkmenistan, it had not been possible until the year 2000 to form a beekeepers association or co-operative. On previous trips, two attempts had been made to teach beekeepers rudimentary honey processing and sales techniques, but none of these efforts were sustained after the consultants left. Winrock was able to form a women\'s co-operative in the year 2000, and we thought that honey would be a good commodity for the co-operative to sell.
In 2001, Bill and Mike travelled to Turkmenistan to work with the newly organised Ilkinjiler Limited Liability Partnership (ILLP), a women\'s co-operative, based in the village of Bairamaly, Turkmenistan. The object of the co-operative is income generation for women, creating new jobs where none existed before, and incomes are limited to approximately $1 per day. A $2000 grant was secured from Rotary Clubs in North Carolina, USA, and the funds were used to buy honey, build processing equipment, purchase jars, and print labels. Since it had been difficult to interest beekeepers in processing and marketing honey on previous trips, the idea here was to set the co-operative up as a middleman honey processor. It is the responsibility of the co-operative to purchase honey from local beekeepers, process and pack it, and deliver it to markets in other towns to ensure a successful continuation of the marketing plan.
Turkmen beekeepers store raw honey in 50 litre aluminium milk cans. The cotton honey crystallizes rapidly. A survey of honey buyers in the capital Ashgabat carried out by a US Peace Corps volunteer in 1999 indicated most consumers preferred liquid honey. To liquefy the milk cans of solid honey, we helped the women\'s co-operative build a hot water bath to melt the contents of three cans at a time, and then constructed a double walled bottling tank to strain and bottle the honey, all out of locally available materials.
Another aspect of the project has been training in marketing techniques and opportunities. There is a limited market-based economy in Turkmenistan. We spent considerable time reinforcing the fact that quality products sell themselves, trying to establish a foundation of good customer service, and ensuring the co-operative kept store shelves stocked with good quality honey. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of jars in the country, despite abundant sand and natural gas that could be used to manufacture glass. Lack of jars and simple processing equipment is typical in former Soviet republics, since under the USSR, the republics produced raw materials, but most processing was carried out in mother Russia. As the former Soviet republics struggle to develop, building basic manufacturing capacity for items like jars and cardboard boxes is a tremendous challenge.
After setting up the women\'s co-operative in the honey processing business, Bill and Mike travelled to other parts of Turkmenistan to meet beekeepers and develop markets for processed honey. One destination was Charjou, a city of one million people located on the Amu Darya (Oxus) River on the border with Uzbekistan. In a village close to Charjou, Mike and Bill met Professor Narkuly, a beekeeper who had been raising and caring for bees for over fifty years. When Mike showed the Professor the newly designed screened hive bottom boards he was beginning to use in the USA for Varroa mite reduction, the Professor showed Mike the one he and other Turkmen beekeepers have been using for years. He explained that beekeepers in Turkmenistan have been dealing with Varroa for more than 40 years. A good method of Varroa mite control that Mike learned from the Professor was that during the summer the beekeepers close up the hive entrances and replace the top covers with glass. This raises the temperature of the hives and kills the mites. They closely monitor the temperature and remove the glass before harm comes to the bees. Perhaps this method can be successfully applied elsewhere in the world? The Professor also demonstrated application of aerosol acid to the bees for Varroa control.
Narkuly and his beekeeping mentor Dovran work for a local farm co-operative to which they give 9.5 kg of honey every year for the use of the hives and land. Although they could sell the rest of the honey crop, they were limited to the local village and surrounding area due to lack of transportation. This is a widespread problem in Central Asia, where population centres are widely scattered and local markets are very poor. Beekeepers had considerable amounts of honey, as much as five tonnes, stored in milk cans, but were unable to sell their honey. Much honey is bartered, but little is sold for cash. Clearly the problem for Turkmenistan is not producing honey but in marketing and distribution.
The rest of our time in Charjou was spent in seeking out markets for processed honey. The grocery stores in Turkmenistan are primarily state owned stores, a throwback to communist times. Product quality and presentation has been poor in these stores, though there are efforts to modernise some of the stores. We met with the district manager of the state stores in the Charjou area, who was interested in carrying honey. With 55 stores under his supervision, it would have been a great opportunity. However, difficulties in invoicing and finding ways to pay the co-operative for honey has prevented the state stores from accepting honey for sale. A sale was made to the local state owned bakery, where a more progressive manager found a way to circumvent the bureaucratic maze of the banking system and pay for the honey.
Back in Ashgabat, the capital, we stumbled across a vendor selling 500 g Russian-made jars out of the back of a rusting shipping container at the huge Tolkuska market on the outskirts of the city. Tolkuska means \'push push\' in Turkmen, as the massive open air market is always crowded with pushing crowds of buyers and sellers. While many consumer goods cannot be found in the stores in Ashgabat, if you have patience, you can frequently find what you need at Tolkuska. We got lucky on the honey jars, as the vendor had 50,000, and they were both cheaper and of better quality that the few Iranian-made jars we had been able to find to supply the women\'s co-operative.
Our latest update tells us the co-operative has been able to get their honey into a large Turkish department store that has recently opened in Ashgabat. The honey is selling well, and the women are very pleased with the profits from the honey business and the opportunities the additional income opens up for their families. The beekeepers from whom the co-operative are buying honey are happy too, as they begin to see cash income for their hard earned honey.
[Bees for Development Journal #62]