As Nature’s Nectar – a mine-supported honey producer that is empowering Zambian honey farmers – has grown, new hires have followed. Davies Illunga was brought on as the company’s first full-time Field Supervisor in 2018, to oversee the work done by farmers (who are, essentially “beekeepers”) and Zone Lead Farmers who, he explains, are like “the general managers of the beehives.” During the course of 2020, three more Field Supervisors who were in part-time positions transitioned into full-time roles.

The Trident Foundation’s commitment to supporting the growth of Nature’s Nectar and its positive impacts on conservation and livelihood creation has continued, with their purchase of 1,000 more hives during the course of last year. An additional four Zone Lead Farmers have since been trained on the harvesting and maintenance of the hives, in collaboration with honey farmers in the community who nominate them for the role.

Henry Chayila is one of them, although he never imagined himself working with bees until recently. “Our job as Zone Lead Farmers is to harvest honey for the beekeepers, and this makes us work extra hard. If you produce a lot of honey, you can make good money – and Nature’s Nectar heard our calls when we asked for our commission to be increased,” says the young man, who acquired his skills on the job. 

“I’ve seen things around me improve since working with Nature’s Nectar. It’s changed the mindset of youths like me. In the past, I would’ve found it hard to start beekeeping because my peers would laugh and say ‘Beekeeping is for old people!’ Also, most of us didn’t know how to make bark hives, so when Nature’s Nectar came up with an initiative to keep bees sustainably and started to distribute top bar hives, it helped us to wash out the old mindsets. It’s become easy for us to keep bees, and now many people – including women – participate in beekeeping because they understand that it’s an initiative that will give us a long-term income, especially in rural areas.”

 Sustainability takes commitment – and capital

Sustainable farming methods are very rarely the least costly option, and require real commitment to principles in a world where fast and cheap often wins. By early 2020, just as Nature’s Nectar was starting to experience encouraging organic growth, the pandemic threw a giant spanner into the works. With strict quarantine requirements for truck drivers transporting goods across borders – including neighbouring South Africa, Nature’s Nectar’s main market – suddenly the essential step of exporting their honey became fraught with challenges and costly delays.

“Now many people – including women – participate in beekeeping because they understand that it’s an initiative that will give us a long-term income, especially in rural areas.”

The company applied for a COVID-19 relief grant from Prospero Zambia, a UK aid-funded private sector development organisation supporting investment in business innovations that increase market access for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises. Like countless companies around the world, Nature’s Nectar’s revenues were essentially paused when the pandemic hit, and the Prospero grant is helping to cover their operational costs, allowing them to focus on business continuity without having to lay off any of their staff. 

Mercy Kabinda is another young Zambian who entered the world of beekeeping since acquiring top bar hives from Nature’s Nectar. “In the past, keeping bees was considered a practice for men because it was hard for a woman like me to go into the bush and extract the bark from a tree to make a barkhive,” she says. Now, the honey she sells the company provides her with a regular source of income.

“Things have improved since Nature’s Nectar started to distribute sustainable beehives,” she says. “The company has started to impact both women and men, since they operate on an equal opportunity basis. When they came with their sustainable method of beekeeping, it got us women involved and we’re now very interested in keeping bees. Selling our honey helps us to pay school fees for our children and to pay for our household needs. Nature’s Nectar has created a long-term income for women, which will help us to further educate our children since the selling of honey has become easy compared with before.” 

Moving up the value chain 

Nature’s Nectar outsources the processing of honey that they purchase from communities, but capacity has always been something of a challenge. Zambia struggles with a lack of processing equipment across most industries and, like mining, agriculture is a sector that has to bear the high costs of importing machinery in order to create finished goods. Locals in the honey business have had to make do with homemade equipment in many cases, but wastage and quality control are problems. 

Nature’s Nectar’s top bar beehives being made in a workshop

Nature’s Nectar is now pursuing yet another opportunity that would allow them to become independent producers of their honey. It’s a $150,000 grant to fund their own processing plant, comprising state-of-the-art equipment that meets the specifications of a potential EU buyer who wants a partner that can commit to a regular supply of high quality honey. “Our waste percentage would go down exponentially compared to processing at existing plants in Zambia,” says co-founder Katherine Milling.

Again, Nature’s Nectar wants to ensure that it isn’t just their business that benefits. They would also handle processing for smaller honey producers, allowing them to meet international export standards and reach new markets. An estimated three to five full-time staff members would be needed to oversee the operations, whose salaries would be covered by the revenue brought in from processing honey for other producers. “Being able to process our own honey would be a huge boost for us, in terms of credibility,” says Milling. 

One would imagine that the improved efficiency would allow the company’s profit margins to instantly go up, too. But doing business in rural Zambia has taught Milling to take things one day at a time, and she is only hoping to keep her margins stable for the time being, pointing out that the cost of power will also need to be absorbed. The next logical step would be to procure solar equipment to power the processing plant, she says. Meanwhile, the company is exploring models to replicate the mutual success of their sustainable partnership with FQM and the Trident Foundation in creating livelihoods that are not mining-dependent, both in North-Western Province and beyond. Always with an eye to the future, she’s already started making connections.

See also: A sweeter future for Zambian honey