The Tabora region in western Tanzania is the country’s largest honey producer, thanks to its famous dark brown honey, produced by bees from the Miombo woodlands. The climate and terrain conditions result in delicious, high quality honey that is popular both nationally and internationally.
Many local farmers in the Mbola Millennium Village harvest honey from traditional beehives, but until recently the equipment and techniques used have greatly limited honey production. Poor market access and business knowledge have also hindered the development of beekeeping as a commercial activity. The Millennium Villages Project has stepped in to assist farmers to modernize and commercialize honey production in an effort to guarantee both sustainable livelihoods and food security in the largely subsistence, agrarian economy.
The potential output using modern honey production techniques is as high as 60 kg per hive per year, compared to only 6 kgs harvested using traditional means – a tenfold increase.
Traditional hives consists of a simple wooden or clay enclosure in which bees can build honeycombs. When a farmer harvests the honey he has to destroy the honeycomb, which then must be rebuilt by the bees before they can start producing honey again. In contrast, modern hives provide removable, pre-constructed combs, which enable bees to use more of their energy on honey production. Using harvesting centrifuges, farmers can extract honey from the honeycomb frames without destroying their structure and the bees can restart collecting honey right away.
These improvements will have multiple benefits for farmers: more honey will be produced with fewer hives; honey collection will become easier, since hives can be distributed over a smaller area; and, because the honey produced will be of higher quality, it can be sold at a higher price. Organic certification and honey-processing facilities are also being planned to further increase returns for local farmers.
The MVP has helped farmers organize into cooperatives to enable them to fully capitalize from these streamlined production measures – improving their bargaining power and business processes. In 2012, 190 farmers joined together to form the Luwola Honey Producers Cooperative Society. The cooperative currently owns 3000 beehives, has prepared a five-year business plan, and received full legal registration in March of this year.
Previously, most farmers sold honey from home, and those that managed to produce surplus for market were often forced to sell it on to middlemen who profited from farmers’ lack of market access by paying very low prices. Under the new structure, the cooperative serves as a primary market for all honey produced by its members while paying fair and competitive prices.
The market potential is encouraging. Honey produced by farmers in Tabora is popular in the Netherlands, Germany, England, Japan, China, as well as the Middle East. There is an increasing demand from the health-conscious market for honey-based products, which can provide a more wholesome alternative for artificial sweeteners as well as honey by-products for medicine and cosmetics. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated global honey production in 2008 was 1.5 million tons, and this figure is expected to reach 2 million by 2015.
For this community, which previously relied on subsistence, rain-fed agriculture to survive, an independent source of income is an essential precursor to food security and prosperity. Commercial beekeeping in Mbola is one of the activities with the highest potential to increase household income, and is therefore an important step toward achieving sustainability in the Mbola Millennium Village after 2015.