Honey is the most popular natural sweetener in the world and the global trade in bee products is worth millions of dollars every year. Due to its diverse use, the worldwide consumption of honey is so huge that supply can barely cope with demand. Africa consumes more than three times the amount of honey it produces. Apart from Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania which produce most of the continent’s honey, other large markets (like Nigeria and South Africa) have a lot of unmet demand for bee products. Beekeeping is an ideal home-based and low-capital business for African entrepreneurs. This article explores the amazing world of the honey bee and all the lucrative opportunities it has to offer…
What are bees and why are they so important?
Bees are flying insects popular for their role in the production of honey. However, not all bees produce honey. As you will find out later in this article, honey is just one of many lucrative products made by bees. Bee products are used in various foods and also enjoy extensive use in several industries including medicine, food processing, industrial manufacturing and natural healing.
Honey bees are social by nature and often live together in large, very organized and sophisticated communities known as ‘colonies’. A colony of honey bees may have up to 100,000 bees that are divided into three main groups (known as ‘castes’). The ‘queen bee’ lays all the eggs (which ensures the continued existence of the colony), the ‘workers’ do all the work (cleaning, finding food etc.) while the drones are fertile males who mate with the queen.
So, back to why bees are important to us. Bees are naturally attracted to flowers because of a sweet substance (called ‘nectar’) that they like to feed on, and as a result, produce honey and several other products from nectar. In addition to honey, bees are EXTREMELY important in the pollination of plants. This simply means that without bees, most plants would hardly be able to produce any fruits.
For thousands of years, honey, beeswax and other bee products were harvested from bees living in the wild using very crude and unsustainable techniques. However, beekeeping (or apiculture) has become a popular modern practice for commercial farmers and hobbyists who manage bee colonies in order to harvest their honey and other products. (photo credit: beegenocide.com)
How to make money from beekeeping in Africa – Products and Market opportunities
The value of global trade in honey and other bee products is over $600 million every year. Most people seem to think honey is the only valuable product bees make. Well, you’ll be amazed to know that the honey bee produces up to six different high-demand products used in a range of industries from food processing to medicine. We shall take a quick look at these products and their lucrative potentials in the market.
Honey is the sweet tasting juice (food) produced by honey bees, popular for its taste and flavor. Due to its natural sweetness and chemical properties, it is preferred over processed sugars and other sweeteners used in baking, beverages and foods. In medicine, honey is used as a sweetening agent for children’s drugs and the treatment of sore throat, cough, hay fever and burns. It is also used to produce cleansers, lotions and creams in the cosmetic industry and used as a nutritional supplement for children, athletes and people suffering from diabetes. (photo credit: showupfitness.com)
Other applications of honey are in animal production (where it is an ingredient in animal feed, and used to increase milk production in dairy cows). Honey is also used in chemical industries where it is used to produce mice and rat repellant compounds.
Beeswax is a wax material produced from the honeybee’s body. Most people who keep bees (especially in Africa) are unaware of the economic benefits of beeswax and often throw it away after harvesting honey from bee hives. A lot of craftspeople and manufacturers still spend a lot of money importing beeswax which can be produced locally.
Surprisingly, beeswax has a much wider use than honey. It is used in food processing industries as an additive and a common ingredient in chewing gum. It has much wider use in the skin care and cosmetic industry where it has been found better than petroleum jelly in making products like lip balm, lip gloss, hand creams, moisturizers, eye shadow, blush and eye liners. It is also commonly used to make shoe and furniture polish, and has been used for centuries to make candles. Above all, beeswax never goes bad and can be heated and reused over and over again. (photo credit: buy-beeswax.com)
Beeswax has over 100 industrial uses and is widely known to have a ready market both at home and abroad. Currently, suppliers in Europe buy processed or bleached beeswax from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania while other African countries purchase processed wax from Europe!
Propolis (also known as bee glue) is a sticky substance collected by bees from leaves, buds and sap of certain trees. Bees use this stuff to fill cracks in their hive, to seal the entrance hole when it is too large, and to keep the hive clean and free from diseases and parasites. Propolis possesses several properties that make it very suitable as an antibiotic and antifungal agent in the pharmaceutical industry. It is also used in natural medicine to treat various conditions, including inflammations, viral diseases, ulcers, skin burns and scalds.
Pollen is basically food for bees. It is a powder-like material found on flowering plants that is collected, eaten and stored by bees in honey comb cells. In many developed countries, pollen is used in some expensive dietary supplements, since it is believed to have valuable medicinal properties.
Royal jelly (or bee’s milk) is a special substance produced by worker bees and fed to the queen bee. Studies show royal jelly to be a good source of Vitamin B. Like pollen, it is thought to have medicinal value and is used in certain expensive dietary preparations. It is consumed more in Asia than any other part of the world. Consumption of royal jelly in China alone is more than 75 tonnes annually. In fact, China makes royal jelly chocolate candy and wine, as well as lotions and tonics for natural healing.
Honey bee venom (scientifically known as Apitoxin) is used by the bees as a defensive weapon to protect the colony from intruders and attackers. This substance is responsible for the bee’s painful sting and is produced in the abdomen of worker bees who defend the bee colony. Bee venom is used in medicine as treatment for rheumatism and other joint diseases due to its anti-inflammatory action. It is also used to desensitize people who are allergic to bee stings and insect bites.
Pollination services are fast becoming a decent money maker for beekeepers. As we mentioned earlier in this article, bees play a huge part in helping plants to produce fruits. As orchard owners, plantation farmers and vegetable farmers work to increase the size of their harvests, beekeepers are getting paid to locate their bee hives within orchards, plantations and farms so the bees can do their magic! This is a trend that is very likely to grow in the coming years as farmers strive to increase their yields. (photo credit: vet.gov.az)
A quick look at some successful African beekeepers…
The 3-minute video documentary below is the story of Wanjiru, a self-employed mother of three children who was sponsored (through a community development program) to become a beekeeper and help boost her family’s income. Wanjiru now sells her honey locally and encourages other mothers to try their hand at beekeeping. It is this simple and low-capital requirement that makes beekeeping such an amazing business opportunity.
African beekeepers Limited is another shining success in African beekeeping. The company produces hives and all the essential kits and equipment for the beekeeping business (including honey extractors and centrifuge machines). It has more than 1,500 bee hives installed in different parts of Kenya and plans to produce up to 200 tonnes of honey for both local and export markets.
The video documentary below reveals the company’s success story and how it has been able to grow a big business out of a modest beekeeping idea. Watch and learn…
How to start your own beekeeping business…
Now that we have explored the world of honey bees, the potential of bee products in African markets and the inspiring examples of some of Africa’s successful beekeepers and businesses, it’s time to look at all the things you need to start your own small beekeeping venture…
Step 1 – You need to acquire some knowledge and skill in beekeeping
While beekeeping can be a simple activity, it’s important that you learn the skills and acquire the knowledge that allows you to manage bees in a modern way. You need to know how to attract a swarm of bees to your hive, how they feed them, how to harvest honey and other bee products, how to avoid bee diseases, the types of equipment you should use, how to avoid getting stung by the bees and all the other dos and don’ts of the business.
There are beekeeping training programs organised by government Agriculture departments and NGOs across Africa. But if you can’t find one, it’s not a problem at all. Thank heavens for the internet! There are several good resources on the internet that can give you all the information you need to get started. We used them during our research for this article and recommend that you digest them as best as you can…
Beekeeping in Africa by Stephen Adjare is a free and comprehensive manual on the FAO’s Corporate Document Respository. It’s ideal for anyone who wants to learn about beekeeping. It’s a very basic and easy-to-read book that provides a lot of detailed information about managing bees in the African environment. African bees are quite different from other bee species (for example, they are much more aggressive). This book is a very good resource for the African entrepreneur.
Step 2 – Get the required equipment…
To get the best results, it’s important to use the right type of equipment for your beekeeping business. The hive, a wooden box used to keep the bees, is the single most important piece of equipment you will need because it allows you to manage the bee colony and determines the volume of honey you will harvest.
While hives can be bought ready-made from bee equipment suppliers in your area, you can also get a carpenter to make it for you as long as you have the right specifications. These specs are VERY important and you are likely to get very poor results if some measurements are too small or too large. Again, there are very good resources online that provide the ideal specifications for your hive. Our top recommendations are: Beehive Construction (PDF) by British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture & Lands and Beehive Basic (PDF) by the Australian Honey Bee Council.
Putting it all together…
For centuries, honey bees have served human demand for products like honey, beeswax and propolis. This demand continues until today, and has grown larger in size. The huge gap between Africa’s consumption of bee products and available supply presents a lucrative opportunity for entrepreneurs to exploit. Beekeeping is easy to start, requires very little capital (compared to other business opportunities) and can be run from home.