Some time ago, the Etse Fewus cooperative put to us the idea of bringing bees to their medicinal herb garden in Fiche.
A healthy swarm could help pollinate the herbs, they said, and provide an important extra source of income for members and their families.
Ethiopia is a country with a long tradition of beekeeping and some of the group already owned a few traditional beehives or ‘kafo’: long, cylindrical baskets, usually made of eucalyptus twigs, mud, woven bamboo and false banana leaves.
Members said they would combine their old Kafos at the garden site if Botanica Ethiopia could help them obtain some modern beehives. The new, more expensive box hives would yield better quality honey – and much more of it.
We loved the idea and so were excited this week to be able to deliver the first batch of brightly-painted modern hives to Gule and Werkalemahu at the garden.
In preparation, the cooperative had added an array of nectar-rich flowers and bee-enticing herbs like Koseret and Aychedamo to their plantation.
We arrived to see a garden bloated with the last water of the Ethiopian rainy season: An overgrown forest of herbs, teeming with small, colourful birds, lizards and tiny blue butterflies. Werkalemahu tells us these are new residents, who share the space with visiting wild bees.
Thanks to permaculture techniques adopted by the Association over a year ago, this plot of once-cracked earth had become a heaving, sweet-smelling ecosystem of crawling things and cheerful herbs that push through fence wires and now stand above our heads.
Werkalemahu, the Etse Fewus Secretary, also happens to be one of Fiche’s beekeeping experts, often called upon by other farmers and local government to provide advice or manage wayward swarms.
Now, he is looking after the Association’s collection of 30-plus Kafo hives and will provide training in modern beekeeping methods to the rest of the group.
Werkalemahu says beekeepers in the North Shewa region around Fiche are unable to meet the current demand for pure honey in town, let alone in the capital more than 100kms away. Perhaps a reflection of the growing demand for Ethiopian honey worldwide.
Considered one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Ethiopia is home to the largest number of bee colonies in Africa. The country is becoming known for its high-quality, organic honey – but until recently, production has been low with most farmers relying on Kafo hives, traditional methods, and small local markets.
Today, an estimated 1.4 million rural households in Ethiopia command an income from small-scale beekeeping activities, often in their home gardens.
Honey and its by-products – like wax and propolis – are now significant export earners for the country; precious commodities in a world rapidly losing its bees to habitats soaked in neonicotinoid pesticides and agrochemicals.
Not only is beekeeping good for Ethiopia’s economy, it’s critical to the world’s biodiversity.
Unfortunately, in some drier parts of Ethiopia, farmers are artificially speeding-up the honey production process by feeding their bees sugar syrup. This cheaper, fast honey is mostly sold to Tej traders to make Ethiopia’s popular honey wine – but it also appears on local supermarket shelves as ‘100% pure’.
Professor Zemede Asfaw, an ethnobotanist at Addis Ababa University, says this ‘bribing of the bees’ is a biodiversity disaster because it’s changing the pollinating behavior of whole colonies of native bees.
“It will reduce crop productivity and the ecosystem services honeybees provide,” Prof. Asfaw says. “It also undermines the food sovereignty of our people because they will be deprived of the right to consume and use the delicious natural honey, made of nectar and pollen, that they’ve always enjoyed and traded.”
In Fiche, the Etse Fewus Association hope their brand of organic, medicinal honey will fetch a healthy price at market while helping to promote the value of their region’s precious pollinators and disappearing herbs. In the future, the group will also be able to use beeswax from their hives to make herbal salves and natural soaps.
As we were leaving with a golden sample of dripping honeycomb in our hands, Gule and Werkalemahu told us that the Kebele (local government) has promised to allocate Etse Fewus another, much larger plot of land at the end of the harvesting season in two months’ time.
Bayehu Kebede, from the Kebele office says they want to support the Association because “it has so many values for our town.”
“This project is a very important one: Economically it has value, socially it has also and environmentally it has value for all of us,” he said on a recent visit.
When it becomes available, the additional land will enable Etse Fewus members to forge a viable livelihood from their combined herb and honey farms.
Until then, Botanica Ethiopia have linked-up with Ethiopian microenterprise organisation, WISE, to deliver a 5-day business skills course for the Association next month.
We hope the training – which will cover everything from financial management to legal requirements, marketing and distribution – will help Etse Fewus profit from their big plans and the precious new land they’ve worked so hard for.
More on this very soon!