With an organic honey business model geared toward Ethiopian youth, Solution Search winner Apis Agribusiness creates a new generation of sustainable beekeepers
By S.E. Irby
Jony Girma has enough knowledge about bees and honey to stack the pages of a reference book. He knows the ups and downs of the harvest: the busy months and the months full of rain, affecting a bee’s ability to 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 sturdy, modern hive sheds, stands and shades. More specifically, Girma knows how to produce high-quality organic honey — the kind that sticks to certified organic guidelines. And he’s ready to share his knowledge.
In 2014, Girma created Apis Agribusiness, a sustainable business model that empowers and trains unemployed youth in rural Ethiopia to become self-employed organic beekeepers. In mid-November, Apis Agribusiness won the “People’s Choice” grand prizein 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, put out a call for sustainable farming solutions that bring people and their harvests in harmony with the land and biodiversity.
Girma sums up the Apis Agribusiness outlook toward the environment with a jingly slogan: “No tree, no bee, no honey, no money.” It’s how he relays the importance of sustainability in a business like beekeeping. Over the past three years, Apis Agribusiness has developed a uniquely symbiotic, locally-driven educational approach to balancing the health of Ethiopian forests and agricultural livelihoods, while boosting sustainable supply chains. And for the young beekeepers who participate, the living is sweet.
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Before Apis Agribusiness was born, Jony Girma built his academic and professional life around honey. He studied honey production at a research center, earned a master’s degree in organic agriculture and economics in the Netherlands, and worked in honey production, where he learned about the growing global market for organic products.
In 2014, Girma decided to start his own organic honey business. 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 Girma.
In search of the right location for his business, Girma surveyed the village of Kundi in southwest Ethiopia. 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 he also saw that its potential was largely untapped — and threatened. Kundi people were wiping out forests and plant life.
With a high unemployment rate and few job options, locals — particularly youth — had resorted to cutting down trees to sell firewood and charcoal. Girma interprets their actions in part as a response to the area’s shortage of agricultural land. 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. As young people looked for more options, some saw leaving Kundi as the only feasible next step. Some had already migrated to Europe or the Middle East to find higher-paying jobs.
In Kundi’s potential and problems alike, Girma found a home for his business concept. Organic beekeeping, reliant on a thriving forest, could provide a new source of income for its increasingly outbound youth, while helping save the area’s forest from further destruction.
In 2016, Apis Agribusiness selected 50 young trainees in Kundi to learn and take up beekeeping and organic honey production. The trainees — both men and women — are all below the age of 30. All were unable to continue their education past grade 10. With technical training and support from Girma’s 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 have set up on the border of their family land or on rented land.
Apis Agribusiness sells the honey to buyers looking for sustainably-produced, organic honey with a transparent journey. “The core point of my business is developing a good story behind my honey,” Girma 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.”
Girma believes that for the training side of Apis Agribusiness to be beneficial for Kundi youth long-term, his teaching strategy needs to be comprehensive, immersive and consistent. The beekeepers have access to a learning center and demonstration apiary site in the center of town, where they attend workshops and practical demonstrations. There, Girma has taught trainees about seasonal colony management, quality control, post-harvest handling, and building transitional hives out of locally-available materials.
Apis Agribusiness 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 Girma sets up SMS message 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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The beekeepers had their first harvest last June. Last year, on average, they harvested 185 kg of honey per youth. Girma encourages Apis Agribusiness beekeepers to use the income they earn from each harvest to expand their honey production, so they can rely more on organic honey down the road. They use part of the money from the honey sales for daily life, as well as funding for other income-generating activities like raising sheep and cows in the off-seasons. The rest, Girma says, they reinvest to establish more beehives. They started with 10, will move up to 14 or 15, and will aim eventually for 32.
“Having the forest is the backbone of my business. And not just for me. For everybody. Having trees is the backbone for life.”
— Jony Girma, founder of Apis Agribusiness
The beekeepers also committed to forest restoration in Kundi when joining Apis Agribusiness. Girma calls this added conservation element the “One Hive, Ten Trees Project.” Each beekeeper plants ten trees for every beehive he or she manages. “Having the forest is the backbone of my business,” Girma says. “And not just for me. For everybody. Having trees is the backbone for life.” The effort is ongoing. “To continue with me, they have to show me the trees are growing,” he says. “They have to conserve the forest.”
Since the start of Apis Agribusiness and the One Hive, Ten Trees Project, Beekeeper Kidane Mamo has noticed a difference in how people in Kundi treat the forest. “My friend would get income from sales of timber and firewood by cutting the forest,” he says. “This is bad for the forest. After we started beekeeping in an improved way with Apis Agribusiness, everybody keeps their hands from cutting the forest.”
After we started beekeeping in an improved way with Apis Agribusiness, everybody keeps their hands from cutting the forest.” — Kidane Mamo, beekeeper
Girma also links his beekeepers up with other Kundi youth and farmers outside the program — one beekeeper for every five people — for training in organic beekeeping. He intends to bring sustainable harvesting methods to scale. It’s a win-win system to him: Girma pays beekeepers an extra sum to incentivize coaching, and people who might otherwise have cut down trees to produce more crops abstain in the name of honey.
Beekeeper Sofiya Shafi is more than willing to take up the mentorship task, because it means she can give other women like her a chance to earn their own living in Kundi. “Now, in the backyard of my family, I have started beekeeping thanks to Apis Agribusiness,” she says. “I feel confident since I have a job and generate income. Last season I harvested 165 kg of honey, and I am expecting more in the coming season. I am coaching other females to have a job in honey production. This means they will have power to manage their money and lives. I like coaching others.”
“Now, in the backyard of my family, I have started beekeeping thanks to Apis Agribusiness. I feel confident since I have a job and generate income.”
- Sofiya Shafi, beekeeper
Girma hopes for more trees, bees, money and honey among Ethiopian communities, in Kundi and beyond. There will be challenges pushing the business forward, he notes. Lately, it’s been a slow process finding the finances for a processing plant to export more honey. Still, it’s important to him to continue the work. He knows what Apis Agribusiness means to its beekeepers.
Kidane Mamo, the head of a family of five, feels like he has more control over his future after joining Apis Agribusiness as a beekeeper. “For me, beekeeping is the main economic source,” says Mamo. “I can manage it with small capital, on small land.” After acquiring 210 kg of honey from his last harvest, he expects to harvest more than 350 kg this season. Using his income, he plans to set up more beehives and buy a cow. “These advantages of beekeeping solve a big challenge in my life,” he says. “I don’t have land for cropping and animal production. Now, through honey sales, I am able to make money and improve my livelihood. Through this money, I will create assets and improve my life. For me, the future is bright.”