How bees are helping tea communities empower women and fight climate change

Authored by Sarah Roberts — the Executive Director of the Ethical Tea Partnership

There’s no disputing the gifts that honeybees bestow. They pollinate fruit and vegetable crops and provide nutritious honey for eating and creating by-products such as beeswax and royal jelly. But in Malawi, bees and their honey now have an extraordinary new role. Through, our work in the Malawi Tea 2020 programme, honeybees are being deployed as defenders of the forest and economic liberators of women tea farmers.

The Ethical Tea Partnership was one of the founders of Malawi Tea 2020, a unique partnership which is increasing incomes for tea workers and farmers and improving the environment in which they live and work and the wider sustainability of the industry and tea communities.

Deforestation in the important Mulanje watershed, the key tea growing area in Malawi, is posing huge threats to local people and to the future of the industry. Deforestation is significantly contributing to the risks posed by climate change and in 2017 the Global Forest Watch reported that an average of 19% of trees had been lost in Malawi’s two main tea growing regions. It is estimated that deforestation contributes to 18% of all global greenhouse emissions, one of the significant causes of climate change.

To combat this, ETP developed a new beekeeping programme. The aim was to protect the forest but also support the additional income stream that honey brings for the tea farmers. Through the programme, local tea farmers are trained in all aspects of beekeeping, from establishing the hive through to marketing and distributing their product. The results have been encouraging and transformational.

A beehive in the forests in Mulanje, Malawi — Credit: Andy Hall

The way it works is simple. By keeping bees in the forests, the trees have been given a team of very small but very effective bodyguards. The tea farmers keep their hives in virgin forest where the bees can find plants to pollinate. These forest areas are vulnerable to deforestation but the presence of thousands of bees act as the perfect deterrent.

The programme’s beekeeping group Katute-Tipinduloe — which translates as ‘let’s invest and make some profit’ — hang their hives in the forest. Felester Nedisoni is one of its members. She explains how the hives are hung and protected in the forest.

“We chose the forest for the apiary. We start by smearing beeswax over the hives to attract the bees. We smear grease over the wires to stop ants and other insects getting into the hives. We check the bees every week and see if we need to add more grease.

“The bees like the shade of the forest which moderates the temperature. They are close to the flowers they need, and they are safer. If they were near the houses, kids might throw stones and provoke them.”

The whole community shares the environmental benefits of beekeeping. Trees become worth more uncut and all farmers or villagers with kitchen gardens benefit from the rich ecosystem the bees support.

Felester’s financial situation is typical of most members of the group. “I’m struggling to provide food for my family. I have a tea field, but it is too small. I’m hoping to get enough honey to pay for necessities such as food throughout the year and materials to improve my house.”

Fellow member Liz Likhubari has been beekeeping for several years and recalls how precarious harvesting the honey was before the Ethical Tea Partnership’s involvement.

“We used to use old food sacks over our clothes. It was dangerous. I used to get stung. Usually if bees manage to get inside your clothing you get stung by many bees at once. Sometimes it is so painful that you can’t work for 2–3 days. It’s much better now that the Ethical Tea Partnership provide us with protective suits.”

Locally sold honey helps increase farmers income — Credit: Andy Hall

Liz’s last honey harvest yielded a healthy 24 kg of honey which earned her 60,000 kwacha — almost the equivalent of what she could expect from her tea harvest in the same period. In addition, she harvests the beeswax for candle making which can net her an additional income of around 2,000 kwacha. The extra income makes improvements to her family’s lifestyle possible.

“With my next harvest I’d like to extend my house. I’ll be able to buy more cement.

In ten years’ time I want my house to be improved and to have as much food as we need. But more than anything, I want a motorbike. I want to be an example to others of what they can achieve.”

Well established hives with good harvests can result in 60 kg of honey a year, which has the potential to make a significant difference to the beekeepers’ lives. The current pilot project of 100 beekeepers will be scaled to 500 by 2020, most of them women.

Mary’s beekeeping has helped provide extra income for her and her family — Credit: Andy Hall

As we celebrate World Bee Day today, the last word goes to Mary Brahim, also a member of Katute-Tipinduloe, who finds that the additional income she receives from beekeeping provides her with a level of financial independence that she did not know before:

“Women are not relying on their husbands for household decisions and they gain respect. My husband respects me as I am contributing to the family. Even other women give more respect to women who are self-reliant. If women are self-reliant, they are free.”