The sweet taste of success

From the heart of the Zambian forests to the shelves of Sainsbury’s in Europe and Body Shop outlets around the world, a special honey is applauded by connoisseurs.

When Portuguese sailors first visited Angola hundreds of years ago, they recorded the fact that they bought high-quality honey and beeswax from people in the north of the country.

The ancient tradition of beekeeping was not unique to Angola – people in Zambia were practising the art as well. In Kabompo in Zambia, near the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, the natural forest is still intact and today thousands of people are still earning their daily bread as beekeepers.

The Kabompo area covers 75 000 square kilometres, with a population of 70 000 people – or 4,8 people per square kilometre. In a 1998 survey, experts concluded that people have no impact on the vegetation in the area. Refugees from both Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have flooded the area, but have not created significant problems for the locals. The refugees have also become involved in beekeeping.

In 1980, the Zambian government formed a company called Northwestern Bee Products, and by 1988 it became the first to be privatised. “We are now completely self-sustaining,” says Northwestern Bee Products director Bob Malichi. The company produces raw honey and wax, and exports 80% of its produce to Europe. Last year, it produced 200 tons of honey and 50 tons of beeswax. The company now exports mainly to Europe – The Body Shop and Sainsbury’s are among its clients. “We have never received a single complaint about our products,” says Malichi proudly. Its honey was certified as organic in 1990 and as bacteria-free last year. The business was also inspected last year for the international Fair Trade market.

“Beekeeping is a way of life in the area. My grandfather and my father were beekeepers, and I am teaching my children beekeeping,” explains Malichi. “We manage wild colonies of bees. The trees in the forest are nectar-producing, and for as long as we know there have always been wild colonies of bees here.”

The traditional art of beekeeping differs from modern-day practices. Cylindrical hives, made from bark, are hoisted high into the forest canopy, where they are either tied to the high branches or suspended to ensure honey badgers cannot reach them. To harvest the honey, beekeepers climb the tall trees and hoist up a “smoker” made from smoking green leaves to calm the bees. The honeycomb, dripping with pure honey, is removed from the hive and lowered down the tree in a bucket. It is pressed by the beekeepers and, transported by donkey cart or on foot, it is delivered to central points where Northwestern Bee Products collect the raw honey and wax. When sufficient honey has been collected, the company transports it by truck from Kabompo to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, from where it is shipped to the European markets.

Malichi says the community has been involved in the privatisation of the company from its inception. All the shareholders are beekeepers and the local district council has a 17% share. The company employs 48 part-time and 25 full-time staffers. When it was formed, 500 beekeepers were involved; this year there are 6 012. The biggest threat to the beekeepers’ livelihood these days would be if the government decides to harvest timber from their forest, or if it is engulfed by a large forest fire.

When Northwestern Bee Products makes a profit, dividends are distributed to the shareholders on the basis of how many shares they own. Annual general meetings provide the only time representatives of all the beekeepers see each other because the distances between them are so huge. “At the AGMs we share information about the way we do beekeeping. Several innovative ways of making hives have been learned at our AGMs – hives are made of grass, reeds, banana leaves and calabashes,” says Malichi. When Northwestern Bee Products started out, it tried to introduce modern beekeeping methods and imported a lot of different kinds of hives from Europe. But the beekeepers were not impressed with the cost of these imported hives.

“If you make a modern hive, you probably need to buy a saw, a hacksaw, a plane, nails and planks. With the indigenous hives our people use, all you need are two hands and an axe. Our people do not use a single nail when they make a hive. So why bother with an expensive endeavour when you get the same returns from the knowledge passed on by your forefathers?” Malichi says men as old as 85 are still working as beekeepers in the forest, but because traditionally the knowledge passed from father to son, very few women used to be involved. The company is attempting to address this and women are gradually joining the beekeepers. Very few of the women are willing to climb the tall forest trees, so Northwestern Bee Products is trying to promote the use of conventional ground hives among the women keepers.

“We teach people how to conduct beekeeping in a sustainable way. The woodland is intact as there is no commercial agricultural activity in the area,” Malichi says. “All the villagers have to do is hang up their hives in the trees, and colonies of bees move into them.”

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