Handout photo from Rare.

More trees, more bees, more honey, more money

Apis Agribusiness empowers youth in Ethiopia to become beekeepers

From Suzanne Hodges at Rare

Jony Girma knows a great deal about bees and honey. He knows the harvest seasons: the busy months and the rainy periods that affect a bee’s ability to fly and collect nectar. He knows bee behavior: how bees find good flowers and show other bees how to track them down. He knows beekeeping: how to catch swarms and build reliable, modern hive sheds, stands and shades. More specifically, he knows what it takes to produce high-quality, organic honey — the kind that sticks to certified organic guidelines. 

For Jony, the only thing that beats learning about organic honey is sharing his knowledge with those who could benefit from it.

In 2014, Jony created Apis Agribusiness, a sustainable business model that empowers unemployed youth in rural Ethiopia to become self-employed organic beekeepers. In mid-November, Apis Agribusiness won the People’s Choice grand prize in Solution Search, a global crowdsourcing contest designed to identify, reward and spotlight innovative local solutions in conservation and sustainability. This year’s contest, Farming for Biodiversity, called for sustainable farming solutions that bring people and their harvests in harmony with the land and its biodiversity. 

Jony sums up the Apis Agribusiness outlook toward the environment with a jingly slogan: “No tree, no bee, no honey, no money.” Catchy jingle aside, Apis Agribusiness has developed a unique, locally-driven educational approach to balancing the health of Ethiopian forests and agricultural livelihoods, while boosting sustainable supply chains. And for the Apis Agribusiness beekeepers, earning a living has never been sweeter.

Before Apis Agribusiness was born, Jony Girma built his academic and professional life around honey. After graduating from college, he worked for four years at a research center dedicated to the study of honey production. He then earned a master’s degree in organic agriculture and economics in the Netherlands, after which he shifted to the business side of honey by joining a company working in its production. During that time, Jony learned about the growing international market for organic products.

In 2014, Jony decided to start his own organic honey business, but he knew he wanted to do things differently. He wanted to create a business model “that also contributed to society,” he says. So he took a closer look at current norms for local honey production in his native Ethiopia, an early adopter of honey production relative to the rest of Africa. Around 1.5 million Ethiopian people keep bees. “Everybody’s practicing beekeeping, but not in an organic or modern way, just totally traditionally, and the productivity per hive is very, very small,” says Jony.

When Jony visited the village of Kundi in southwest Ethiopia for an informal survey, he noticed a paradox taking place there. With its abundance of natural forest coverage, the area was ripe for honey production. He could see it from the moment he entered the village: the road leading to Kundi and into the surrounding hills and forest was covered with big flower-bearing plants. But despite the useful forest cover, many of Kundi’s people were wiping out the key natural resource.

With a high unemployment rate and few job options, locals — particularly youth — resorted to cutting down trees to sell firewood and charcoal. Jony interprets their actions in part as a response to the shortage of agricultural land in the area. While previous generations were able to set up farms for traditional agriculture, like maize and wheat cropping, there wasn’t much space left for young people to set up farms of their own. Some young people saw leaving Kundi as their only feasible next step, and some had already migrated to Europe or the Middle East to find higher-paying jobs.

Sofiya Shafi, a Kundi native who now works as a beekeeper with Apis Agribusiness, says before she started beekeeping, she was unemployed and saw few options for making a change. “I couldn’t continue school beyond 8th grade, with no nearby high school,” she said. 

 “I didn’t have money to rent a house in town. If you don’t go to school, the only option for women in rural areas is marriage.” Sofiya wanted more.

Jony saw in Kundi what its jobless youth couldn’t yet see: a sustainable source of income that relied on a thriving forest. If he could help Kundi youth learn to see the potential for organic honey production in the rich forested land and effectively train them in production methods, his business model could simultaneously address local livelihood needs and help save the forest from further destruction. “Having the forest is the backbone of my business,” says Jony. “And not just for me. For everybody. Having trees is the backbone for life. That’s why I try to link the business with sustainability.”

 In 2016, Apis Agribusiness selected 50 young trainees in Kundi to learn and take up beekeeping and organic honey production. With technical training and support from Jony and his business, the trainees began working as self-employed beekeepers, each constructing 10 of their own beehives and harvesting honey for sale by Apis Agribusiness. They choose from three production windows — November, February to March, or May to June — to harvest honey twice or three times a year, from small apiary sites they’ve set up on the border of their family land or on rented land.

Apis Agribusiness sells the honey to buyers interested in sustainably-produced, organic honey with a transparent production journey. “The core point of my business is developing a good story behind my honey,” Jony says. “When you buy a jar of honey from me, it’s a different jar of honey than from someone else, because the youths are improving their livelihood and the natural forest is conserved. It is also keeping them living in the village without any migration. It is environmentally and socially sustainable.”

The trainees — both men and women — are all below the age of 30. All were unable to continue their education past grade 10. Jony believed that for the training side of Apis Agribusiness to be beneficial for Kundi youth in the long term, his teaching strategy needed to be comprehensive, immersive, and consistent.

He set up a learning center and demonstration apiary site in the center of Kundi to hold group workshops and practical demonstrations in modern, high-quality honey production. There, he’s shown trainees how to create transitional (over conventional) hives out of locally available materials like bamboo, as well as seasonal colony management, quality control, post-harvest handling, and more. More specifically, he’s taught beekeepers how to follow the guidelines for producing certified organic honey.

Organic honey must be harvested, for example, in a location free from agrochemical or fertilizer application. If there are agrochemicals, Jony says, bees mix with the chemicals when they collect nectar from plants growing on the land. “You can find the residue of the chemicals in the honey,” he says. “That honey is not organic.” That’s why a place like Kundi is ideal for organic honey. Unlike some of the big commercial farms in central Ethiopia, Jony says, where chemicals are commonly applied in maize and wheat farming, farmers in forest areas like Kundi use smaller land and forgo agrochemicals.

Apis Agribusiness also works to keep beekeepers connected to the project once they’ve left the training center and started working in their own apiary sites. Technical staff make visits to support their sites, and Jony sets up SMS (short message service) reminders to keep beekeepers on track with the right steps throughout the harvesting season. “This also has some impact on them psychologically, they are feeling confident someone is following them,” he says. “Like someone is looking after them.”

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