Bees not Roses:

The Honey Cavalier

It is quite possible that our Valentine's Day roses were cultivated far away, perhaps in Ethiopia, where greenhouses are proliferating. But despite the growing floriculture industry of cultivated flowers in Ethiopia, one intrepid young man is not using roses to woo his fiancé, but bees.  

By Peter Lüthi, Biovision project reporter

The honey cavalier: Shelema Negeri of Botar Boro, Tolay (Ethiopia) will soon marry - thanks to the help of his bees.

Shelema Negeri, a 22 year-old native of Botar Boro, Tolay, in southwest Ethiopia, has long had his eye on a particular woman, whom he hopes to marry. There are numerous greenhouses for cut flower production near the capital of Addis Ababa, but on Valentine’s Day he will not present her with flowers. The cut flowers are largely destined for export, and at any rate Shelema’s home is a bit too far from Addis to pick up a bouquet. Besides, Shelema has bigger concerns than Valentine's Day, namely, how to marry the woman he loves. There is no lack of love, but there is lack of money.

A wedding costs a fortune

It is expensive getting married in Tolay. The suitor is expected to give the parents of the bride a generous gift before they even consent to the marriage. He is also expected to outfit his fiancé with a wardrobe.  "I will have to provide new clothing for her,” says Shelema, “and that is not cheap." The prospective bridegroom must also be able to pay for a large wedding celebration with food and music to which all relatives and friends will be invited. Furthermore, he has to purchase a number of gifts for the bride-to-be. Besides beautiful clothing, he is expected to buy her jewelry, new shoes, and a posh umbrella. Altogether a wedding costs at least 13,000 to 15,000 Ethiopian Birr (CHF 570 - 660). Shelema believes this estimate is on the low side and thinks his nuptials will cost closer 20,000 Birr – for him, a veritable fortune. The sons of wealthy families can afford these costs, but men in Shelema’s position cannot. His father is a simple farmer, and cash is rare commodity in the family. Plus, there are other sons. "I have five younger brothers,“ Shelema explains. ”They too all hope for financial support from our father”.

Shelema realised early on in life that his future happiness lay solely in his hands. For this reason, he agreed to work for a wealthy peasant as a youth, to earn his way. Since then, he has made his living by selling corn and teff grain. Selema carefully saves his profits whenever possible. Even so, from the outset it was clear to him that it would be an extremely long time before he could save enough to marry. But then something happened.

Shelema Negeri's home: a landscape near Botar Boro, Tolay district, in Ethiopia.
Honey is healthy and is considered a medicine in Ethiopia.
The production of bio-certified honey is a very good source of income for people living in the countryside.
High-quality, pure honey is scarce in Ethiopia and therefore very much in demand.
The honey from the Biovision project is bio-certified and is subject to strict quality controls. For example, the water content of the honey is regularly checked with a refractometer.
Honey bees - highly esteemed helpers for the people of Tolay.
Modern bee boxes with honeycomb boxes allow the production of pure, high quality honey.
Today, each member of the youth group has two modern boxes which they care for themselves.
Beekeepers: training in beekeeping for members of the youth group. Shelema is on the far right.

Chance of a lifetime

When Shelema and his group of friends in Botar Boro heard that Biovision was looking for young people to be trained in modern beekeeping, they saw an opportunity and jumped at the chance. Although beekeeping and honey production are practiced in Tolay, they had certain disadvantages. Traditional beekeepers use baskets and hollow tree trunks instead of bee boxes, and their honey tastes very strongly of smoke due to working with an open fire during the harvest. Their honey is also badly contaminated with bee cadaver and wax, because using the old methods, they are unable to harvest the wax and the honey separately. In contrast, modern beekeeping makes use of bee boxes with honeycomb frames, which make it possible to produce excellent quality, pure honey.

The 37 members of Shelema's group – which includes 11 women  - were taught modern beekeeping in the Biovision project. At first, the inclusion of young women was a novelty, as beekeeping had always been a male preserve. In Biovision projects, gender equality is compulsory, so the village community had to decide if they wanted to participate under these conditions. The Toloy council took the leap, and ever since, the community has been very successful at modern beekeeping.

Bees as marriage “assistants”

Each member of the group was given two bee boxes and cared for them independently. The project transformed the worlds of the project participants. All of them are now producing pure honey, which is very popular in Ethiopia and can be sold in the capital, Addis Ababa, providing a good income to the young beekeepers.

In addition to learning beekeeping, the Biovision project taught the youths how to carefully process, prepare, and sell their honey.

Thanks to Biovision's bee project, more than 600 people in Tolay and their families have already managed to significantly improve their life circumstances. In particular, the project has opened up new perspectives for the young, including Shelema.

"With my honey harvest I already earn about 12,000 Birr per year," he enthuses. If everything goes well, he will soon be able to offer his fiancée a wedding bouquet.