Apis Agribusiness is making life sweeter for a new generation of Ethiopian youth

More Trees, More Bees, More Honey, More Money: Solution Search winner Apis Agribusiness is making life sweeter for a new generation of Ethiopian youth

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. And he knows what it takes to produce high-quality, organic honey.

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 November 2017, Apis Agribusiness won the People’s Choice grand prize in Solution Search, a global crowdsourcing contest designed to identify, reward and spotlight innovative solutions in conservation. The contest is facilitated by Rare, an international conservation organization, in partnership with IFOAM – Organics International, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Germany’s International Climate Initiative (IKI).

Solution Search is part of a larger initiative funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI), a German initiative supported by The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB). Over three years, Rare, IFOAM – Organics International, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat has been working together to identify these promising approaches. After winners are chosen, they will host capacity-building workshops across the globe to spread these effective solutions.

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 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.

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 sector. 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 production company. During that time, Jony learned about the growing international market for organic products.

In 2014, Jony decided to start a different kind of organic honey business. He wanted to create a business model that contributed to society. 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 visiting the village of Kundi in southwest Ethiopia, he noticed a paradox. With its abundance of natural forest coverage, the area was ripe for honey production. 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 — were cutting down trees to sell firewood and charcoal. While previous generations were able to set up farms, there wasn’t much space left for young people. They started migrating to Europe or the Middle East to find higher-paying jobs.

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 see the potential for organic honey production and effectively train them in production methods, his business model could simultaneously address local livelihood needs and help save the forest. “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 — men and women under the age of 30, all of whom were unable to continue their education past grade 10. The trainees began working as self-employed beekeepers, each constructing 10 of their own beehives and harvesting honey for sale by Apis Agribusiness.

Apis Agribusiness sells the honey to buyers interested in sustainably-produced, organic honey with a transparent production journey. “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,” says Jony. “It is also keeping them living in the village without any migration.”

The beekeepers had their first harvest last June. Last year, on average, they harvested 185 kg of honey per youth. Jony encourages Apis Agribusiness beekeepers to use their income to expand their honey production. They started with 10 beehives, will move up to 14 or 15, and will aim eventually for 32.

The beekeepers also committed themselves to forest restoration in Kundi. Jony calls this added conservation element 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. “After we started beekeeping in an improved way with Apis Agribusiness, everybody keeps their hands from cutting the forest.”

Jony hopes to bring the Apis Agribusiness to other communities in Ethiopia. There will be challenges pushing the business forward, he notes. For instance, it’s been a slow process finding the finances for a processing plant to export 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. 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 to provide milk for his family.

“For me, beekeeping is the main economic source,” says Kidane. “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.”

By Suzanne Hodges

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