Locals in Northwestern Province certainly aren’t strangers to honey farming, where this ancient practice has been a form of livelihood for many decades. But, over the years, as demand for Zambian honey has grown almost as rapidly as deforestation, honey farming is at risk of dying out, along with the forests in which it has thrived for so long. Traditionally, honey has been collected in what is known as a “bark hive”: a hive made from pieces of tree bark — as the name implies — which is wedged between branches and baited for bees. But, the very act of stripping trees of their bark is also killing them. 

A 100-year-old tree might survive as home to a hive for two or three years, but will die soon after its bark is stripped. “It’s like having a giant portion of your skin removed; You’re not going to survive long after that,” says Katherine Milling, co-founder of an innovative start-up called Nature’s Nectar, which has been successfully introducing sustainable honey farming practices into communities surrounding West Lunga National Park for a little over a year, by providing farmers with a different type of hive — and a market for their honey. 

“What we do at Nature’s Nectar is distribute locally, sustainably produced top bar beehives to rural farmers in Zambia’s Northwestern Province. These hives don’t take from the local forest, and they produce a higher quality honey that meets international standards.”

By providing farmers with this type of hive, Nature’s Nectar have found a sustainable solution in which everyone wins. Instead of being “barked”, the very same flowering trees that are essential for attracting bees are protected, and farmers can produce better, export-quality honey in the process. But the business model that goes with this — simple, yet scalable as it is — may be the company’s biggest strength.

“We are the sole buyers of all honey coming from these hives, which we process and sell,” explains Milling. “Nature’s Nectar was founded with the core belief that we have to create real and measurable impacts. These impacts include a minimum 30% annual income increase for the farmers we work with, protection of one hectare of local forest per hive through our hive distribution model, equal opportunity (a minimum of 50% of the farmers we work with are female), and the protection of the bees themselves through our sustainable harvesting method.”

Milling and her two fellow co-founders were not the only people who saw the enormous potential for impact that Nature’s Nectar could have within rural Zambia. But, after briefly partnering with a company that only had profits — not impacts, or sustainability — at heart, the young Nature’s Nectar team realised that they needed start-up funding in order to create a truly sustainable business in which local communities really wanted to be involved.

Enter First Quantum Minerals

The Nature’s Nectar team approached the Trident Foundation at First Quantum Minerals (FQM) for the capital to buy their first batch of 2000 hives. “FQM saw the need to protect the forests near the mine, and wanted to facilitate the creation of a sustainable livelihood for locals,” says Milling. The Trident Foundation had also previously partnered with a honey company doing similar work, but hadn’t seen sufficient results to justify their continued financial involvement. 

“We started with 2000 hives that FQM purchased in 2018,” says Milling. “Then, this year they invested in another 5000 beehives. Through working with FQM, we were able to show growth and proof of concept — which includes the data that we collect, to give us full traceability from hive to bottle.”

“FQM saw the need to protect the forests near the mine, and wanted to facilitate the creation of a sustainable livelihood for locals,” says Milling.

The traceability starts with the hanging of the hives, which are locally manufactured from Copperbelt-sourced pine. Every one of the 7000 hives that the Nature’s Nectar team have delivered to farmers has its GPS location recorded, which has to be done manually for accuracy. “We now have two part-time field data collectors who help us when we need to record all the information when the hives arrive. You have to ‘ground truth’ every single hive.”

Once the GPS locations of each and every bee hive have been collected, the potential for information-sharing is remarkable. Consumers may wish to know, for instance, exactly who harvested the honey they have purchased. The farmers can also refer to a specific hive’s location to report any potential issues. Perhaps a hive was knocked down by a storm, or it became infested with ants and needs to be cleaned and re-baited with beeswax. “We have a reporting system that farmers are trained on, which also tracks the hives’ occupation [by bees]. That helps us to see the movement of bees in the area, and to forecast our expected harvest yield,” explains Milling. 

In fact, the farmers themselves are relatively hands-off. Nature’s Nectar works with what’s dubbed a “lead farmer” for every zone, who are thoroughly trained on the harvesting and maintenance of the hives. The farmers are essentially “beekeepers”, and are required to check on the hives at least once a month to ensure that they’re safe. 

Davies Ilunga, who has been working with Nature’s Nectar since April 2018, is the company’s first full-time Field Supervisor, and part of his job is to oversee the work done by farmers and lead farmers. “The lead farmers are like the general managers of the bee hives,” says Ilunga. “They go through training so they can help people learn to make more honey. The more we have honey, the more money comes into our pockets.”

The lead farmers earn commission on all honey produced by farmers within their zone. “Nature’s Nectar makes sure they train people well,” says Ilunga. “Especially compared to other companies that come into the forest who just give people a little bit of cash, and go away without training them how to do things themselves.”

All farmers and lead farmers are entirely selected by local communities. Regular meetings with the people involved in honey farming are held by Ilunga and Milling, who first gained a command of Northwestern Province’s predominant language, Lunda, while working in the area as a volunteer in her early twenties. Naturally, the Nature’s Nectar team has regular meetings with the leaders of the chiefdoms who own the land, including Chief Ntambu, in whose village Milling and her husband live.

The more we have honey, the more money comes into our pockets.

“Ntambu is the village where we’re headquartered, which is under Chief Ntambu,” explains Milling. But we work under multiple chiefdoms. We chose to live in Ntambu seeing as it was a central point, because we target the area all around West Lunga National Park. It’s also close to Kalumbila, where the foundation that’s supporting us is based. We’ve had a lot of support from the Chief, who is really involved and keen to do honey production.” 

Nature’s Nectar’s focus on conserving the forest is part of an agreement with local leaders in various swathes of land around West Lungu National Park. For every one hive that the company introduces to the area, it commits to protecting one hectare of forest, minimum. This, too, can be measured quantitatively, via Nature’s Nectar’s very own mobile application. 

There’s an app for that 

It was FQM’s desire to be able to better measure the impacts that projects and companies like Nature’s Nectar have on the communities surrounding the mine that ended up making their app a reality.

“FQM enjoys working with us because we’re one of the only contractors that gives them detailed information about the impact that our company has,” says Milling. “They actually supported us in paying for the initial cost of creating our data tracking application.”

Nature’s Nectar was profitable in 2018, its very first operational year. But in order to expand their company, and the phenomenal impact it’s having on communities in Northwestern Province, they are seeking funding and investment in a combination of equity and debt. That is, essentially, what brought them to Impact Capital Africa in October 2019. The unique set-up during this two-day event in Lusaka allowed investment-ready, post-revenue entrepreneurs to connect with impact investors with an interest in Zambia. And there was no shortage of impressed investors in the room after Milling eloquently speed-pitched the business in less than two minutes.

“Since starting in 2018, we’ve sold over 60 tonnes of honey worth over $180 000. With an additional $500,000 investment, we’re seeking to distribute 50,000 beehives to 5000 farmers. This will create 400 to 500 of tonnes of honey annually, one and a half million in revenue and $500,000 in profit every year. This is just phase one with 50,000 hives. There is potential to grow to 10 times that.”

Nature’s Nectar’s top bar beehives being built from Copperbelt pine

Initiatives like Nature’s Nectar easily attract organisations who have grant funding to distribute, and want something concrete to show for it at the end. But Milling and her team believe that traditional investment in a for-profit business is the more sustainable model. “It’s more accountable,” she explains. “Investment creates more pressure to do what we’re doing well, and to keep it profitable.”

The beauty is that, theoretically, the profits are tied to the company’s accountability; the more profitable the company is, the greater the positive impacts will be. “We can’t be profitable without making the impacts first,” Milling points out. “We’re not going to have a lot of honey if we’re not protecting the forest. We’re also not going to have a lot of honey if we’re not treating the farmers we work with well.”

As Illunga said, hinting at the company’s slogan: “Save the bees, save the trees, so we can make more money, and more honey!”

Photographs by Jasper Doest

See also: Making more than peanuts