December 8, 2022

Sustainable jobs in honey with the Bee King

Every bee hive has its queen. In Burundi, they also have a king. Domitien Nzirorera is the country’s expert on beekeeping and honey production, which has earned him the nickname “le Roi des Abeilles” (the Bee King).

Domitien studied agriculture at the “Ecole Technique d’Agriculture” (the Technical School for Agriculture) of Karuzi, his home province. Working on agricultural projects supported by the World Bank in Muyinga as one of his first jobs, Domitien quickly realised that apiculture – beekeeping – was a forgotten sector. Whereas other agricultural sectors benefitted from supporting structures aimed at helping farmers, when beekepers faced challenges or had questions, no one had an answer for them. Domitien was determined to find those answers.

Domitien Nzirorera is Burundi's 'Bee King', an expert on beekeeping and honey production © 2022, SPARK

Green, sustainable jobs for underprivileged youth
Given Burundi’s high population growth, pressure on the country’s natural resources is increasing and trees are regularly cut down in favour of creating more arable plots and producing wood charcoal. While most agricultural practices lead to some form of land degradation and biodiversity loss, apiculture tends to contribute to biodiversity as beekeepers typically plant flowering and other bee-forage plants because of the positive correlation between the health of beehives and that of their environment.

Beekeeping only requires a small area, making it more accessible to underprivileged or marginalised groups © 2022, SPARK
Honey and derived products have a high nutrition value, contributing to food security © 2022, SPARK
Apiculture contributes to biodiversity as beekeepers typically plant flowering and other bee-forage plants © 2022, SPARK

Additionally, contrary to many agricultural occupations that require land, beekeeping only requires a small area, making it more accessible to underprivileged or marginalised groups without access to large, fertile land.

Finally, honey and derived products have a high nutrition value, contributing to food security. Many products are also used in traditional medicine, for example propolis is a very effective antiseptic.

Given the relatively low barriers to entry, the honey sector in Burundi has the potential to create a high number of green, professional opportunities for youth from both rural and peri-urban areas.

Improving productivity and sustainability
Since 2020, Domitien has worked with SPARK as a technical honey expert as part of the Akazi Keza programme. Domitien trains and coaches new beekeepers in his technical expertise and modern techniques, which allows them to increase their  productivity and subsequently their income.

Domitien taught Burundian beekeepers to swap their traditional beehives for modern beehives. These modern hives have two main advantages: they allow beekeepers to harvest honey and other produce without damaging the hive, which is not only a more sustainable practice but also makes it much safer for the beekeepers.

Modern hives being introduced to Burundian beekeepers allow them to harvest honey without damaging the hive in a safe and sustainable way © 2022, SPARK

Modern hives enable beekeepers to easily monitor the beehive and to intervene as needed. For instance, every fortnight a ‘princess’ will hatch and take away a group of bees with her to start a new hive, gradually depleting the beekeeper’s hive. In a modern beehive, the beekeeper can intervene to remove the princess before she hatches and to harvest the royal jelly, a highly sought-after produce. Because of these advantages, a modern beehive allows beekeepers to harvest between 30 and 40kg of honey in one season, whereas traditional beehives only produced 8 to 15kg.

Moreover, Domitien has explained the importance of a healthy, biodiverse environment to ensure the hive is productive. This has prompted beekeepers to become champions of biodiversity, protecting the land and increasing the number of indigenous plants.

Creating 150 jobs in honey
In the last two years, SPARK’s activities in the honey value chain in Burundi have borne fruit: 30 permanent jobs, 70 seasonal jobs and 50 indirect jobs, such as carpenters who manufacture modern beehives, seamstresses who put together protective equipment, have been created for young Burundians.

Moreover, Domitien’s knowledge of modern beekeeping techniques and his coaching skills have enabled Burundian beekeepers to significantly increase their honey production. This has been very visible in Akazi Keza’s honey processing facility in Cibitoke, where beekeepers can process raw honey with high-end equipment so that it can be sold at a decent price. In 2021, the volume of honey processed in the facility increased from 1,500 kg to 11,000 kg!

Beekeepers can access loans digitally
To enable more beekeepers to transition to modern equipment and to fund the growth of their businesses, such as investing in additional hives or processing equipment, access to finance is key. To support young beekeepers in obtaining a loan, a partnership was set up between SPARK, microfinance institution Burundi Lend & Lease and Dutch fintech company, Moneyphone.

Beekeepers can access loans through a new digital platform set up by SPARK, Burundi Lend & Lease and Moneyphone © 2022, Moneyphone

A fully digital lending platform – adapted for the honey value chain – was created which allows beekeepers to request a loan digitally and obtain much more favourable terms and conditions than those offered by traditional banks, such as lower interest rates and flexible repayment plans. The young entrepreneurs access an online portal, which is provided in Kirundi and French, where they can fill in the basic details of their loan request. At each stage, they can receive support in the application process from the cooperative of which they are a member.

In April 2022, out of 114 applicants, 50 beekeepers from Bubanza and Cibitoke in north-western Burundi, had received a loan of 500,000 BIF (approximately 200 EUR). These loans have allowed them to increase the quantity and quality of their honey production, enabling them to generate more revenue during this harvesting season than the last. As a result, the beekeepers are expected to complete their repayments of the loans by December 2022.

Now that quality honey is being produced in greater quantities, the business coaches of CEMAC, one of SPARK’s main implantation partners, are supporting the honey enterprises in getting their quality produce to market and in increasing their sales.

With the dedication of the Bee King, apiculture in Burundi is on the rise and a number of Bee Princes and Princesses have emerged to safeguard its future.