“Look at the group of farmers with their herds of cows, goats and sheep at the foot of the mountains. They’re migrating in search of pasture due to lack of rain and the ensuing drought,” lamented Desalegn Mamo, a native of Wag-Hemra Zone in northern Ethiopia. We were travelling by car in August 2019 along winding, dusty and bumpy roads.
It was supposed to be the rainy season, but the scorching sun was out. The fiery intense heat didn’t seem to beat down the acacia trees and other shrubs or small evergreen trees that were sprawling across the rural villages and roadsides. The scattered and increasingly thinning flora, important sources of honeybee forage, is testimony to years of deforestation and erosion in the region.
Beekeeping has increasingly become an important agricultural activity in the region. Farmers keep traditional hives in shelters at backyards close to dwindling rivers and small water bodies.
So, what’s the buzz about beekeeping’s contribution to economic resilience? Here’re our notes from an extensive visit to northern Ethiopia.
It is not only coffee that Ethiopia is well known for.
The country is Africa’s top honey producer, with more than a quarter of the continent’s honey. This’s huge when one considers the sheer number of bee colonies – ten million of which five million are hived – and over 800 identified honeybee forages.
In Wag-Hemra, most villages are in the honey business; apiculture, the methodical rearing of honeybees, is no longer a side-line activity. It requires low cost to establish, as beehives and other equipment can be made locally (though this may also affect productivity/quality), and in drought-vulnerable areas, it is a sound alternative for ensuring food security and stable economic output. Traders and other buyers confidently predict that production can easily triple within few years.
Three years ago (in 2016), the contribution of bee colony to the agricultural activities of households in Wag-Hemra was close to 14%. The major demand for honey is domestic, which is close to 99%, whereas export market demand is less than 1%. There’s about 20 companies exporting honey to different countries like Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, Norway, Germany, and others.
The large share of the honey produced is used for making the local tej wine or Ethiopian honey mead, which is flavoured with a hops-like herb and often made at home or at small local bars. Traders in Wag-Hemra told us that they’re able to buy up to 3,000 kilograms of honey each, which they then resell to other buyers, in particular, those coming from Tigray region up in the north. In all major urban areas, demand exceeds supply. Compared to export markets, local markets are enormously attractive.
More and more young people are engaged in producing and trading honey. In a region that’s highly affected by climate vulnerability, unemployment, and migration, beekeeping seems to offer an important source of employment and income generation. Its contribution to nutritional and medicinal products for sale or home use cannot also be discounted despite only about 10% of the honey produced in the country being consumed by beekeeping households.
The honey and other by-products (e.g. wax) market, however, is fragmented. There’re few local buyers who have linkages with high value markets and even existing linkages are weak. Producers, who sell crude honey to collectors in the nearest town/village market and consumers, are typically connected through consolidators and co-operatives. These weak linkages between businesses within the market have resulted in inefficiencies, missed opportunities, and often, overreliance upon a few consolidators. Producers sell their yield locally to traders at prices much lower than in the national commercial market.
Producers and other actors jump to blame low productivity on a lack of capital – access to and use of finance, for example, for improved beekeeping technological inputs. Most producers use traditional beehives that are cylindrical, conical, having large and small openings in the two opposite ends. Modern movable frame hives are better for appropriate colony management and use of a higher-level technology, potentially providing higher yield and quality honey.
The adoption of movable frames requires investment and skills. However, access to finance doesn't seem to be a serious problem. Our discussion with actors in the honey market suggests otherwise. Capital investment required isn't huge compared to other agricultural activities, and traders and other actors are ready to invest and advance money, both in-kind and cash investment.
Rather, raising product awareness and setting commodity standards seem to be additional and important constraint. Demand of table honey is increasing at national level. Prices are determined by the quality of honey. Post-harvest handling in which consolidated products are stored for some time in less optimal containers leads to fermentation and colour change. Faulty handling, from the time of its harvest until it reaches the market, is responsible for its low quality and loss of income.
In addition, there’s a strong public sector in the country with the potential to support the honey sector. The public sector, however, is a wrong actor for the right functions. Parastatal firms are engaged in processing and selling honey, distorting the market or displacing other actors like traders and small entrepreneurs. This comes at the expense of resources that could be redirected to critical issues such as infrastructure (electricity and water) and quality assurance. Government-led huge investments, like Yeju Honey and Honey Products Processing, seem to be long-shots with poor prospects of supporting the honey sector in sustainable ways.
There’s great potential for beekeeping to boost economic resilience of communities in Wag-Hemra Zone, assuming that the constraints mentioned above are addressed in a facilitative way. Yet, the region is increasingly facing a difficult agro-ecological condition worsened by recurrent and extended droughts and precipitations that have become less reliable over the past years. There’s a rapid loss of indigenous species and habitat diversity.
Adaptation to climate change is already taking place, though on a limited basis. For the honey sector, there’s a risk of absconding and migration of bee colonies; this has already started as changing conditions force bees to abandon Ethiopia’s parched peaks. This may, in turn, affect not only current opportunities of income and self-employment, but also the process of pollination essential for increased crop yields.
The challenges that the Wag-Hemra Zone faces are reflections of development narratives that also echo at national and international levels. This calls for understanding and acting on the broader notion of sustainability. Practically, this means that we need to include ecological aspects in our work in addition to financial, institutional, and social elements of sustainability.
Simply put, economic resilience initiatives need to be integrated into water resources management, water for food, climate resilient natural resource management and climate smart agriculture.
Covert picture: Courtesy of Scott Hogan