The Rise of Black South African Bee Farmers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because bees keep humans alive.
At Pretoria’s Rooiwal Agricultural Village, Mokgadi Moloko Mabela is inspecting a row of beehives whose future inhabitants will pollinate produce grown in nearby plastic-covered tunnels and surrounding fields. Friendly and chatty, Mabela, 30, is relatively new to beekeeping, although the vocation runs in her family. Six years ago, she was working for Pretoria’s Department of Human Services when her father fell ill, leaving no one to take care of his 450 hives. Mabela decided to learn the trade, falling so deeply in love with beekeeping that when her father recovered, she launched her own startup — Native Nosi — in December 2015.
Beekeeping in South Africa can be sticky, though: The Cape Agency for Sustainable Integrated Development in Rural Areas reckons that viable operations need at least 350 hives producing honey that can be sold for a minimum of R45.00 per kilogram ($1.50 per pound). Mabela tends a modest 100 hives, although her toothsome liquid fetches more than $4 per pound. She is proud to be part of a growing movement of previously disadvantaged bee farmers turning to creative funding mechanisms to achieve commercial parity in a white-dominated field.
I want to be the biggest Black bee farmer in all of Africa.
Mokgadi Moloko Mabela
Bees and beekeepers are essential to South Africa. According to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), honeybees pollinate more than 50 of the country’s top crops, including nuts, berries, citrus and oilseed. ARC’s Mike Allsop guestimates that commercial, managed honeybee operations contribute up to $1.5 billion to the economy each year (nearly half in the Western Cape province alone).
And yet a 2008 report from the South African Bee Industry Organization (SABIO) noted that commercial beekeepers lack the resources to support the pollinators at levels required by the agricultural sector. In trying to address the shortfall, Allsop says, government agencies poured millions of rands into unsustainable development projects designed to churn out beekeepers — known locally as development beekeepers. “Some 20,000 development beekeepers have been trained in South Africa,” he says, “and there’s not [enough] forage to keep them.”
Mabela says beekeeping “takes time, it takes money and it takes a lot of passion and dedication.” She is constantly brainstorming innovative new ways to raise funds. In addition to drawing in orders through social media, Native Nosi works with the People’s Fund crowdfunding platform to solicit financial support. She raised 186 percent of the first campaign’s $2,000 target, allowing her to purchase 30 hives and a settling tank, where harvested honey “rests” for up to 36 hours before bottling. Now, she’s in the midst of a second fund-raising campaign, which asks investors to sponsor a hive for about $88 and reap a portion of the rewards over six years. If all goes well, in two months her one-woman operation could buy 1,000 hives — and her success would have wide-ranging implications for the country.
Allsop says having more Black commercial beekeepers will advance the transformation agenda of the country. Plus, they would help reduce the need for imports. Presently, 50 percent of the 4,000 tons of honey South Africans consume annually is imported — mostly from China. The remaining 2,000 tons are predominantly produced by large commercial operations run by whites. More successful Black bee farmers would “change the current ‘us versus them’ context of beekeeping in South Africa,” says Allsop, and that’s important, because experienced white commercial bee farmers can play an important role in helping others scale up.
Jaco Wolfaardt has been in the business for 25 years, providing honey, pollination services and equipment across the Cape and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). “The problem in South Africa is a lot of upcoming beekeepers think it’s an easy, quick way of making money,” he says. “But that is definitely not the case.” So in 2012, he started Ubusi Beekeeping, which has helped six development bee farmers establish their own businesses with 80 percent of the profits going to the farmers (a seventh business is on the way). Wolfaardt provides equipment and training and processes the resulting honey in a central facility. From there, it’s shipped to five retail stores. (OZY was unable to reach any of Wolfaardt’s rural farmer partners for comment.)
Social entrepreneur Guy Stubbs also is convinced that helping development bee farmers achieve success depends on unwavering commitment. And so Stubbs founded African Honey Bee to lift people out of poverty with micro-enterprises across KZN, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. By progressing through each step of the training process, participants earn the materials they need to make their own equipment, like gloves and veils, and eventually graduate with four flat-packed bee hives. “My life has completely changed,” says Zodwa Makhoba, a mother of three who lives in Zululand in KZN and joined African Honey Bee last March. Stubbs pays beekeepers $1.68 per pound for their honey, and Makhoba supplements that income with chickens — broilers and layers — as well as fruits and vegetables grown in her garden.
African Honey Bee started with two interest-free loans from the Industrial Development Corporation, which Stubbs will pay back after reaching 30 percent profitability. Another source of revenue: The giant paper company Sappi commissions Stubbs’ outfit to protect its eucalyptus groves from honey hunters who accidentally burn down trees when smoking out bees. Ideally, Stubbs says, he’d partner with a group like Whole Foods. “They can market themselves and what they’re doing to help communities,” he says. “And we’ll get sufficient markup on the product to be self-sustaining.” So far, 1,150 beekeepers have completed his program. Still — overall — the industry remains very much whitewashed.
In their 2008 report, SABIO counted just 20 professional beekeepers operating 1,000 to 7,000 hives. It’s unlikely that any were Black South Africans, according to Allsop. He says updated statistics do not exist, but he knows of only a few Black beekeepers working beyond the 300-colony level. However, over the past eight years, he has seen “a whole lot of really decent business partnerships” help small-scale, nonwhite beekeepers grow.
As for Mabela, she deeply respects her father for putting three daughters through boarding school as a subsistence beekeeper during apartheid. He, in turn, is befuddled by her Facebook and Instagram accounts, but she has no intention of staying small. “I want to be the biggest Black bee farmer in all of Africa,” she says, standing tall and confident in her crisp white bee suit.