Sweet temptation: A field report

The Biovision project "Beekeeping for Young Companies" in Sekota, Ethiopia was launched in 2018. The people there learn entrepreneurial thinking through training sessions that help them secure their livelihood. A field report by Nina Zenklusen, who visited a Biovision project on site for the first time.

Has always an answer ready: Lulseged Belayhun, project manager at icipe during the puncture

The Jeep stops abruptly. Yarid Eshetu, our driver, gets out slowly and takes a close look at the front right wheel. Lulseged Belayhun also gets out to inspect the wheel with Yarid. Lulseged will guide us through Ethiopia during our time here. He works for our partner organization, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). He is a man with an engaging grin and, depending on the position of the sun, alternates between sunglasses and glasses. Together they study the front wheel. The tire is damaged. Together with Loredana Sorg, our project manager, I sit in the back seat of the SUV. Mohammad Getahun, the bee expert of the regional veterinary office, sits between us, somewhat restrained.

We are close to our destination: We have already covered most of the distance between Lalibela, a pilgrimage site in the Amhara region with monolithic churches that belong to the UNESCO World Heritage, and our destination, the district of Dehana. We are in the north of Ethiopia, which lies at an altitude of 2,000-3,400 meters above sea level. By the time we arrive in Dehana, Loredana and I will have traveled 755 km from the capital Addis Ababa. The people there live self-sufficiently, mainly relying on cattle breeding and agriculture. The increasingly difficult conditions, such as prolonged periods of drought and overexploitation of natural resources, especially deforestation, are a burden on rural life. With 105 million inhabitants, Ethiopia has the second-largest population in Africa after Nigeria. The population continues to grow, especially in rural regions, but resources are becoming scarcer. The consequences are massive rural outmigration and rapidly growing urban agglomerations. With 3.5 million people, the capital Addis Ababa is now one of the metropolises of the African continent.

The construction of a church in Sekota. About 63% of the Ethiopian population claim to be of Christian faith.

The power of prudence

Addis Ababa is far away, though. We are in the mountains, on the last stage of our journey. The landscape is barren and dry. For an hour, the road has consisted only of jagged stones. Our companions are still looking at the flat tire. The two exchange a few words. Finally, Yarid takes the jack and the spare tire out of the trunk and hands it to Lulseged. Meanwhile, we all got out. I take a picture of Lulseged. Although his back is turned to me, he notices and turns his head to look at me with a wide smile, all the while not interrupting the tire change. We wait, without haste, until we can drive on. There is hardly a situation that agitates our three companions. Their calm in the face of unpredictability impresses me. I will find that this trait applies to many people I meet on my journey. What a stark contrast to my nature, accustomed to a regulated, structured everyday life in Switzerland! An African proverb says: "Europeans have the clock, we have the time".

After a five-hour drive through the Ethiopian mountains, we reach Sekota. From here we will visit villages that are part of the Biovision project "Beekeeping for Young Companies". Youth unemployment here is high. This is why the foundation’s focus lies on start-ups for the production of honey and beeswax for young people. Since the launch of the project in 2018, 300 of those young people, half of them women, have decided to learn beekeeping. There are also two tailors who sew protective suits, ten carpenters who make modern bee hives and 18 local honey and wax traders. The beekeepers also learn how to grow nurseries with nectar-rich plants. Why bees without nectar and pollination?  This approach seeks to counter rural poverty, stagnating economies and soil degradation in equal measure.

The idyll of the barren landscape in Dehana

The fly on the wall

"Mar" means honey in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. It is one of the few words I could learn. It is a helpless feeling to travel through a country and not even decode the simplest street signs, let alone follow conversations. The patience with which Loredana listens to experiences from and information about the project participants impresses me. Without Lulseged as interpreter, we would have come home without a report. I look spellbound at the facial expressions and gestures while Loredana asks questions, Lulseged translates them, the person addressed answers him, and then the translation process all happens again in reverse. Every day, Loredana receives a number of requests and impressions from various people. And of course, there is a lot to tell! The project is new for everyone involved and is still in the discovery phase. With focused attention I try to guess what the many words and movements of the beekeepers mean. Ultimately, however, I am glad that my task is limited to observing and photographing our project journey.

Everyday goods in Dehana: Flatbread and the freshly harvested honeycombs

Breaking through roles

Although we bring a solid knowledge base to our bee project in Tolay, Ethiopia (2011-2017), each launch at a different location always requires adaptation to new conditions. The most successful group of the project in the Dehana district is a group of four female beekeepers and one male beekeeper. This is unusual because the gender roles in rural Ethiopia are normally rigid: the man works abroad; the women take care of the home. The beekeeper Brahania Asmamo talks about how she manages the bee colonies and her own demands on the project. She proudly shows us her immaculate bookkeeping and her inventory list, which Lulseged deciphers for us. While he takes his notes, Brahania and the other beekeepers watch him closely. He is responsible for passing on the experiences of the people from the villages to the next administrative office. "We are like your children. You have to look over our shoulders so that we do everything right," Brahania warns him. Due to the long journey, he only visits the young entrepreneurs about two or three times a year. We are allowed to taste their honey as a farewell gift: it is coarse-grained and tastes rougher and stronger than Swiss honey. It is, as a metaphor, the dark chocolate among the types of honey. To stand together with Brahania and the other enthusiastic beekeepers in the midst of bee cultures in mountains over 3,000 meters high was an impressive moment that I took home as a memory.

Access to knowledge as a basis

I am convinced that the methodology and perspective that Biovision uses to launch projects is a sustainable and valuable opportunity for all people involved. In Dehana, I experienced how Biovision not only creates access to infrastructure such as bee hives and colonies, but also ensures that knowledge remains anchored in people's minds for the long term. The experiences of the project beneficiaries are regularly incorporated into the methodology in order to continuously improve the impact of the Biovision projects. Complex issues such as unemployment, climate change and education are tackled on a small scale through constant exchange with local people affected. Experts from the local government are active in a different level of involvement in the dissemination of modern beekeeping. They thus ensure that the knowledge and skills acquired are retained by the relevant administrative offices even after the end of the project.

On our way back to Addis Ababa, Loredana and I stop in Lalibela. Tourists crowd the town, the streets full of markets. Lights line the paths and the street noise is omnipresent. I think back to the beekeepers and their prudent but hard everyday life. It doesn’t seem all that bad. Far away from the rapid changes in other parts of Ethiopia, a valuable and stable project is thriving in the district of Dehana.

Wissenszugang als Basis

Ich bin überzeugt, dass die Methodik und Perspektive, mit der Biovision Projekte aufgleist, eine nachhaltige und wertvolle Chance für alle Beteiligten ist. Ich habe in Dehana erleben dürfen, wie Biovision nicht bloss Zugang zu Infrastruktur wie Bienenkästen und -völkern schafft, sondern auch sicherstellt, dass Wissen langfristig bei den Menschen verankert bleibt. Die Erfahrungen der Projektbegünstigten fliessen regelmässig in die Methodik ein, um die Wirkung der Biovisionprojekte fortlaufend zu verbessern. Komplexe Themen wie Arbeitslosigkeit, klimatische Veränderungen und Bildung werden im Kleinen in stetem Austausch mit den betroffenen Menschen vor Ort konkret angegangen. Fachpersonen der Lokalregierung arbeiten auf einer Ebene aktiv an der Verbreitung der modernen Bienenhaltung mit und stellen so sicher, dass das erarbeitete Wissen und die Fähigkeiten auch nach Projektende bei den relevanten Verwaltungsstellen erhalten bleiben.

Auf unserem Rückweg nach Addis Abeba halten Loredana und ich noch in Lalibela. Zahlreiche Touristen sind vor Ort. Die Strassen sind voll mit Märkten, Lichter säumen die Wege, der Strassenlärm ist allgegenwärtig. Dabei denke ich zurück an die Imkerinnen und ihren besonnenen aber harten Alltag. Eigentlich ist das gar nicht schlecht so, denke ich. Fernab vom schnellen Wandel Äthiopiens gedeiht im Bezirk Dehana etwas Wertvolles und Beständiges.

The most successful bee company (from left to right): Shaga Alamain, Aynalem Sefiew, Alisi Tesema, Esmerau Taganji