A Shifting Market

A Shifting Market

Kembata Tembaro honey is currently an untapped and unrecognized honey market in Ethiopia. Local use of the sweet stuff primarily supplies the brewers of Tej,  the thousand + year old fermented honey wine which requires being made from the wax and honey mix in it’s crude form. Therefor as our beneficiary beekeepers evolve in their practice, harvest increased amounts of honey and have the tools for separating it from the wax, theoretically increasing their market value, they are currently only running into more problems.


As no other table honey, as it is known, exists in the local market, potential buyers are only skeptical of the product, believing that the honey is mixed with sugar. Truly, this is a much too common reality on both a local as well as national level.  Because of this lack of market confidence, beekeepers continue to sell their honey wax mix to the current market need at the price the buyer marks.


Hence, the main purpose of our teams last 10 days in country has been to better understand this reality and find immediate solutions for our beekeepers increasing production.


Having previously made contact and visited with a neighboring Angacha beekeepers cooperative, we decided to check in with the 250 + member group early in the week, and were once again quite impressed. With initial 4 year funding and support by a fairly large and well known NGO they are producing, packing, selling, and managing, the sale of over 2,000 kgs per harvest.


Their collaborative efforts have also greatly influenced the local agricultural office so much so that they’ve donated a plot of degraded and eroded land for the use of a community apiary and melifera, nectar and pollen producing reforestation program. We first hand witnessed how this effort is simultaneously increasing the overall land quality as well as brings additional support to the resident bees.


The following day we arranged a gathering with beneficiaries, our team representatives, as well as with a local government livestock extension officer. When community concern for market opportunities arose as well as for their interest in additional bee friendly flower and plant seeds, it was only natural to wonder if the neighboring cooperatives model would also suit ourselves.


Beyond My Expectations

Beyond My Expectations


In collaboration with WEEMA international, It’s been 2 years since we led 2, week long beekeepers training programs in Kembata-Tembaro Ethiopia, 350 km southwest of the East African capital Addis Ababa.

In each of the introductory training programs, 35 community members were introduced to the basics of bee biology, health, and beehive management. As part of the workshop community members participated in the construction of their own locally resourced transitional style top bar hive and were actively trained in how to transfer bees from the transitional type as well as how to catch swarms in order to grow their apiary site. 8 months later we returned to the communities, introduced a honey press machine, and spoke and demonstrated proper honey harvesting techniques, which enabled beekeepers to increase the value of their product by separating it from the wax.


At that point, in November of 2014, beekeepers had already begun to see an increase in honey product, from harvesting 4 kilos of honey singlehandedly from the traditional basket hive; they were now harvesting 12+ kgs, increasing their production 3 fold in only one harvest. Before our departure beekeepers were encouraged to increase their hive number which they enthusiastically agreed.


Soon following WEEMA followed our suggestions and contracted Tameskin Alemu, our beekeeping assistant, translator and carpenter, to work directly with the beekeepers in order to increase hive numbers and address challenges as they surface.


With WEEMA’s additional support, bamboo and rope, 2 necessary materials for hive construction were sourced from neighboring towns and sourced to the beneficiaries as they continued constructing more beehives.

12 months later, I’ve returned with a group of Columbia University Graduate student who through their semester long course have partnered with WEEMA International to better understand the honey value chain in Ethiopia therefore making suggestions on the best way for our beekeepers to market their more readily available honey and wax product.


With all this instruction behind, I wasn’t quite prepared to find such great success upon our visit with beneficiaries this past week. Not only have hive numbers increased, but livelihoods have noticeably been altered for the better. In one of our apiary site visits Bakalesh proudly showed us 10 active hives behind her Medula home. 


Considering she hadn’t kept bees before our training session, this is considered quite the accomplishment regardless of her circumstances. Through the sale of her honey she is now sending her children to school as well as training her son in beekeeping with hopes to continue increasing her hive numbers.

Kembata- Tembaro Honey Press

Kembata- Tembaro Honey Press


Until now, beekeepers in both Medula and Kololo  have sold their crude honey in the form known as “injera”. Going by the same name as that of the fermented teff grain bubbly flat bread, honey along with pollen, propolis, and rolly jelly all are all sold inside of the wax honey comb.


Nutritionally, this mix is very beneficial as all the bee products are kept in their most natural state. However, as beekeepers sell these products in their crude form to the the tej makers in town who in turn mix it all with water and allow it to ferment in the production of their traditional honey wine, these benefits as well as their market potential are lost.


The second half of our workshop was spent introducing the proper use and maintenance of an Italian imported honey press machine.



Beyond benefiting from the increased amount of honey produced in the transitional beehives, beekeepers are also able to benefit from the cleaner and more hygienic products the bees create.


Rather than selling the “injera” honey to the tej buyers at an average price of 50 Birr per Kilo (2 Euros/Kilo), by separating the wax from the honey, beekeepers have the potential of selling the wax for at least 200 Birr/Kg (8 Euros/Kilo) and the pure table honey for another 60 Birr/KG.


Yet, as beekeepers brought to our attention, the sell isn’t always going to be easy. In order to increase the product, many honey sellers, weather producers or resellers have the reputation of mixing their honey with sugar in order to increase it’s over all weight. So when product quality is in question, selling honey inside the comb has been the only way to guarantee its purity.


Temporarily stumped at this issue myself, I know that the only change to this dilemma is community education. Beekeepers need to be constant with their selling prices as well as production. When they value their product, buyers desiring their product will have no choice but to do the same.


By being consistent with their production as well as quality, beekeepers can recreate a stronger market in their favor, and like most changes this will take time.


But as their enthusiasm and commitment have shown me in our little time working together, I have no reason to think that they won’t.


When is honey ready to harvest?

When is honey ready to harvest?

Both classroom time and field time were spent this past Saturday and Sunday with community beekeepers in order to better answer what might seam like a simple question. Though some beekeepers have already harvested honey twice since establishing  their newly constructed transitional hives 8 months ago, questions of their products quality is a big concern. 

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We started Saturday morning in Kololo by identifying the area’s nectar flow calender. By compiling a list of bee forage trees and plants and the months in which they flower, beekeepers can better prepare for their hives to be in full force as well as harvest the honey to make room for the next round. However, not just any honey can be taken.

After making hundreds of foraging trips to fill just one wax cell with nectar. bees must provide enough ventilation within their honeycomb for the nectars’ humidity level to drop below 20%. Once this is achieved, bees finish the preservation process by covering it with a thin layer of wax. By acquiring this low humidity level, not only will the nectar keep without spoiling but the honeys’ micro septic properties make it impossible for bacteria to grow thus preserving it’s quality  Only at this point is the honey ready to keep until needed by the bees and therefor ready for the beekeeper to harvest.

Upon completion of our theoretical review beekeepers gathered at Worku Ochemo’s home and we put our newly acquired knowledge to the test.


 We prepared our smoker, put on our protective gears and as the sun went down we began our practical session with the transitional beehive.


We opened the hive and were happy to see that the bees had so positively taken to their new homes.


Bees don’t work for nothing, and their wax production and extension of the honey comb not only shows the quality of the hive design but of the bees ability and desire to fill it with food.


As the bees gently buzzed acknowledging our presence and under the light of a simple headlamp and torch beekeepers looked on as we identified and explained each of the combs. The above panel filled with pollen was excitedly distinguished, 


from this one, of ripe honey.


Ambakuna Hive Tours

Ambakuna Hive Tours

We began our time in Kembata-Tembaro Ethiopia touring as many of our recently trained beekeepers homes as one day allows.


Friday morning was spent in Medula,


where beekeepers proudly demonstrated their established transitional beehives, recently acquired swarms awaiting transferring, and their newly constructed coverings protecting their hives against rain and sun.


Beekeepers took the time to explain how beneficial the hives were in comparison to the old and not only were the bees able to produce more honey but the beekeepers noticed that they were happier in their cleaner home.



We spent time asking questions about bee forage and harvest times, and no beekeeper hesitated in identifying the plethora off nectar and pollen plants surrounding their homes.



                                 The afternoon took us back to Kololo, 


where beekeepers once again, welcomed us into their homes.


They were excited to show us their growing apiary and all the new transitional hives they’ve built since our last workshop only 8 months ago.




Following our February 2014 workshop, beekeepers had already harvested honey twice,


and were very eager for us to sample.




Not only was it a joy to visit the homes of more than 10  new and old beekeepers but there commitment and enthusiasm showed through their generosity, 



and it was all just a taste of the beautiful experiences to come.


Beehive Building in Medula

Beehive Building in Medula

After working out the kinks of the top bar hive frame construction in week one, our team of builders including myself, my brother Cien Keilty-Lucas, our long time friend Madeleine Ruegg, Tolera Kumsa, and our two local hired hands Tameskin Alemu and Mengestu, we started off the week with a mass production line Ethiopia has only seen far and few between. 


When the Medula women’s group began to collaborate on the construction of their hives on Wednesday, it also didn’t take them long to get the bamboo weaving underway.



The work could easily be seen as tedious, yet the women found a way to drown out the monotony with a fair bit of chatter, song and laughing.


It was another informative and empowering week of class and a busy one of building, but in the end all participants were satisfied in the construction of their very own Top Bar beehive.


Local Swarm Catching Technology

Local Swarm Catching Technology


Kembata Tembaro Beekeepers have not changed the manner in which they multiply their hives for over 500 years. Men climb the branches of tall eucalyptus and accacia trees and hang their long cylinder baskets in their branches. Leading up to the height of the strong nectar flow season when the bees population outgrow their home, 1/3 of the bees take their queen and leave the hive in search for a new one. Knowing this, beekeepers place their empty hives in close proximity to their existing ones. Amazingly, as we were told in our community  meeting, here in Kembata Tembaro, there is a 100% success rate in filling those hives. This is called swarm catching.

Working with this success rate is not only the best way for beekeepers too expand their apiary but also a good way for new beekeepers to start up with their first colonies.

So while we are introducing transitional style beehives we are also introducing similarly designed swarm catchers. Sharing the same dimension yet one third of the volume, these hives are designed to make the age old traditions just a bit more efficient.1896861_716051895102191_1093467507_n

Rather than having to harshly break newly constructed honeycombs killing many bees in the process, using a bit of local technology, after 2 months of a new colonies presence, beekeepers can simply lift the top bar from the swarm catcher and slide it into the full sized hive.


We’ve demonstrated the construction of these new locally sourced swarm catchers here on the ground and local beekeepers seem excited about their possibilities. As the rains accumulate and bee populations expand, their use and success rate could make swarm catching and hive multiplication more efficient for both the the beekeeper as well as the honey bee.