The beesness of honey

Bee keeping logo

You know it’s a great jua kali project when you see the logo

Honey is one of the most valuable products of the drylands of Africa. It can be obtained by following a little bird called a honey guide to a bees nest in a tree, whereupon one raids the hive. Or bees can be farmed…in most places a bee keeper simply hollows out logs to make perfectly acceptable hives for local consumption. for commercial purposes however, Langstroth hives are universally thought to be superior to the traditional log hives found in Africa – the box shape make them easy to stack and move around,  and the movable frames guide bees to build combs in an organized manner making comb extraction easy. These hives also have a queen excluder, a mesh grid, usually made of wire or plastic, sized such that worker bees can pass through but the bigger queens cant. This keeps the queen from laying eggs in the honey combs called supers leading to cleaner honey. There are so many NGO’s, GOs and religious Orgs introducing these bright yellow langstroth hives across the Kenyan landscape.They don’t always catch on though – in rural areas people still prefer the logs…

Traditional hive
Traditional hive

Traditional log hives are hollowed out logs usually cut from specific tree species with the permission of the local chief. They are hung high in trees and the inside is rubbed with leaves of plants that attract bees – a practice that has been going on for eons. The bees enter the hives through a tiny hole and build their combs willy nilly throughout the space, it’s inefficient and the honey is of a lower quality as the larvae are all mixed up with the honey combs. Not very good for a business approach… or should I say Beesness?.

Langstroth hive in Baringo Kenya
Langstroth hive in Baringo Kenya

Logic would suggest that the Langstroth hives which produce cleaner honey and they save trees should be favoured right? Wrong! These modern hives are produced by experts in cities and cost a good $100 – far beyond the reach of anyone living in rural Kenya. It’s also rumoured that these hives are easily broken into by honey badgers, over heat in the dry climate of north Kenya driving bees away, and are expensive to maintain. On a personal note, I for one, find them extremely ugly too.

Modified traditional hive
Modified traditional hive

One bee keeping cooperative in Bogoria has figured out a cunning way of modifying traditional log hives to produce more honey. A bee excluder is made using coffee mesh.

Symon demonstrated how beeswax tracks are laid down to guide the bees where to build their combs in neat lines. Cost? One third of the Langstroth hive.

Bucket of raw honey
Bucket of raw honey

The honey is collected at night by naked men (yes totally naked …) they say that this prevents one from getting bees stuck in your clothing… I asked about the possibility of getting stung in sensitive places, they said the bees were far too civilized for that…but yes, people had fallen from the trees and been found comatose and butt naked at the tree base…

Honey extractor
Honey extractor

Raw honey with comb is sold to the local cooperative where wax is separated from honey. The machine is another jua kali item bought in a workshop in Nairobi.

Home made bee smoker
Home made bee smoker

Bees are smoked out of the hive using a home made smoker.

Production by 40 bee keepers was 8 tons last year, each Kg of raw honey was bought by the cooperative for Ksh 80 ($1), and sold on raw at Ksh 100, or processed and honey sold at Ksh 600 per kg ($8).

8 tons of raw honey were collected in 2008 – this is valued at Ksh640,000 for the 40 bee keepers in the business.

The wax is not wasted but converted into candles which sell for Ksh 10 each ($ 0.12).

Candle making gadget
Candle making gadget

Using a jua kali gadget for making candles, comprising a string, a piece of conduit pipe and two beer caps….ingenious!

Bees wax candle
Bees wax candle

Producing the sweetest smelling cheapest candles I’ve ever used. They claim they burn much longer than paraffin candles. Besides they smell delicious

Some sweet facts

· The dry lands of Kenya are the important honey producing districts in Kenya – the semi arid climate, diversity of flowering plants and easy access to fresh water makes it perfect for bees. Kenya is the fourth largest producer of honey in Africa 22,000 tons, China is the worlds largest producer at 299,000 tons (USA produces 70,000 tons) (figures for 2005).

· The group in Baringo produced 8 tons of honey last year.

Bee keeping motto
I love their motto for hard work - "never expect magic from no where".

· Kenya is a world center of bee diversity with over 3,000 species (about 10% of the worlds total number of species)

· Only 150 species or thereabouts produce honey in Kenya.

· Contrary to popular belief, most bee species are harmless… they have no stings

· The Kalenjin people immunize themselves to bees by purposely stinging babies with bees

· In many pats of Africa, honey is an important component of dowry or bride price – a kilogram being made as part payment for the bride – symbolic of the sweetness of sex – or so I’m told 😉

· Bees pollinate most of the crops that we eat

· Bee keeping is most productive in natural habitats, and is a one of the few forms of resource extraction that does not destroy the environment.

The sour facts

· Bees in USA and Europe are disappearing fast – a condition described as colony collapse disorder (ie. Nobody knows why it’s happening). Africa is unaffected so far making honey production a very sweet deal.

Cactus eating bull saves Kenyan drylands

Cows are playing an important role in land restoration in Baringo by eating up the invasive prickly pear cactus a nasty invasive plant that is destroying the drylands. It’s not obvious at all for cows to eat this thorny cactus, but Murry Roberts and his wife Elizabeth Meyerhoff told me about an amazing project that their organization, RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments) has been working on. A few years ago they discovered that a local farmer had a bull that not only ate the nasty exotic thorny ugly, plant, but also taught other cows to go for it too.

Mwalimu cow eating prickly pear

Mwalimu cow eating prickly pear

This is very surprising because any self respecting cow, a sheep or a goat will not touch the nasty prickly pear. The farmer had aptly named his cow Mwalimu (Mwa-lee-moo  means Teacher in Kiswahili) because it taught other cows to eat the prickly pear .

Prickly pear
Prickly pear
Prickly pear Tunas  for sale in Morocco
Prickly pear Tunas for sale in Morocco

Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus indica) is origninally from Mexico and is an economically important species of cactus – the red/purple fruit known as tuna’s are much sought after in many parts of the world. It has been cultivated in many parts of Africa as a hedge, but has become a serious pest because it spreads rapidly degrading ranch lands, and is very difficult to control. As a result, Opuntia eating cows are hugely important in the drylands of Kenya.

How did this farmer get his cow to eat Opuntia? During the drought of 1999 – 2000 grassy fields were reduced to bare earth and cows had nothing left to eat were dying of starvation leading to widespread famine. The story goes that one farmer persuaded his bull to eat the leaves after he had burned off the thorns. Opuntia are 80% water and if one can get past the thorns, the plant is quite nutritious . The other starving cows watched the bull and then followed suit thus saving the herd and the farmer who has never looked back. The thorns are burnt off using wood from another nasty invasive species, Prosopis juliflora – making this an eco-friendly project all round.

As part of RAE’s rehabilitation of Baringo’s drylands, and to make multiply the value of mwalimu bull to other farmers RAE bought the bull and during droughts, Mwalimu goes from one homestead to another teaching herds of cattle how to eat Opuntia, thereby saving hundreds of cattle and people from starvation. For Mwalimu it’s a job that saved his life – he is too valuable to be turned into beef burgers!

The cutting and use of Opuntia and Prosopis is also important in controlling these invasive species which have been planted as live fences, but which are fast becoming weeds in the degraded Baringo lowlands. Apart from prickly pear eating cows RAE also restore grasslands and eliminate soil erosion in an innovative project that has huge application across the drylands of Africa. We met women who were doubling their money by buying and fattening cows on restored grasslands in a 3 month period!

For more information, check it out here RAE Trust

You can also contribute to the good work of RAE by helping us spread the word and share this great innovation through your blog, facebook, twitter, digg, or stumble. Thanks!

Support AfriGadget’s Young Mobile Reporters

If you donated before your funds never made it to us and are lying unclaimed in your PayPal account. Please consider re-sending that money via the new widget below. (this one does work, I have tested it)

The Grassroots Reporting Project is one of the initiatives that we’ve been talking about for a little while here at AfriGadget. It’s where we put smarter mobile phones into the hands of young Africans and get them to report AfriGadget stories. We’re at a point now where we’ve identified the right people, what we need is your help in raising $500 to make it happen.

The pilot project

As this is our pilot project, we want to start small and learn lessons before we expand to other parts of the continent. Our first group is made up of some youth from the Khayelitsha township outside of Cape Town. Local blogger Frerieke van Bree is acting as their blogging and multimedia mentor as they are taught how to find and tell stories about local inventors, innovators and local people doing ingenious things around Cape Town.

Two of the individuals that will be taking part in the program are Lukhona Lufuta and Zintle Sithole. Both live in Khayelitsha Township near Cape Town. They are 12th grade students who are part of a 12 week leadership program called COSAT (Centre of Science and Technology, a High school for science, IT and Math).

Lukhona Lufuta

Zintle Sithole

What the money is for

We had originally thought to use the Nokia N95 that we were so kindly given by Pop!Tech, this is a fairly costly device to have an accident happen to, so we have decided to ask the AfriGadget community help us purchase the Sony Ericsson C702. According to Frerieke,

“The phone that was most convincing to me due to it’s nice robust appearance – no sliding or flipping to open, it’s solid, easy to use, doesn’t look too fancy and it is splash and dust resistant (useful in the sandy township).”

Sony Ericsson C702

Your part

We could use your help in a number of areas. First and foremost, just help spread the word about the project. If this pilot project turns out well, we’ll be doing this in many other untapped parts of the continent, and we’ll need even greater support.

Second, donate using the Chipin widget above, or to

Lastly, thank you for being part of this community, for helping it get traction and grow all over the world.

[Update: After talking with support at ChipIn, they told me it is no longer supported, unless you create it through their new service SproutBuilder. I have done this, and a new widget is available above.]

Elephant Pumps

Here’s an interesting simple, low-maintenance technology:

Elephant Pumps” that were introduced to rural areas in Zimbabwe and Malawi during the last few years. These rather simple, enhanced rope pumps (based on an ancient Chinese technology) where designed for use in rural areas, where the supply of readymade spare parts isn’t that easy.

Cycle option on an Elephant Pump
Cycle option on an Elephant Pump

Now, what makes the Elephant Pump so different from the other popular low-maintenance pump “Afripump” is that it’s locally assembled and maintainable by the local community. Both systems – Afripump and Elephant Pump – may have their pro & cons (80-100m depth, high durability, low-maintenance vs. <40m depth, simple design, cheaper), but I especially like the “bicycle option” added to pumps which were built for schools:

On school pumps Pump Aid often incorporates a “bicycle” system onto the Elephant Pump since this has proved enormously popular with children. Most children in Zimbabwe have never had the chance to ride a bicycle so can even come to school early to “play” on the pump thereby helping to fill the school water tanks. The job of collecting water, once a tiresome chore, becomes fun and children no longer have to leave their classrooms to walk miles carrying buckets of water on their heads from a distant muddy pool.

The British Charity Org “Pump Aid“, which has in the past introduced and promoted these systems in Zimbabwe and Malawi for the costs of GBP 250 (~ USD 460, EUR 310) each, also created a very informative video on how the technology actually works:

“The Elephant Pump yields about one litre of clean water every second for an average well depth of 20 metres.”

It’s simple, it works, it wins! 🙂