With the global collapse of bee colonies, the production of honey is decreasing and the big honey producers-US, China and Argentina- have been affected too. The demand is high; the production is low. As a result, major importers of honey are now turning to Africa.
But there is one problem: Beekeeping is still treated locally as a cultural activity and farmers- despite the demand-have not satisfied the national demand. "We export honey yes, but local demand is still high," says Mr Julius Korir, the acting general manager, Trade Information and Business Counselling Services, a department of Kenya's Export Promotion Council.
Mr Kaburu Ikunyua has been practising apiculture since 1975 and is struggling to keep some 15 beehives. Ikunyua, the chairman of the Apiculture Association of Kenya, says one has to be a commercial beekeeper to make money and he wants to organise small scale farmers to tap the emerging potential.
In Kenya, honey is sold by the highways in honey producing areas, supermarkets, herbal clinics and to traditional brewers. This leaves very little for export, but demand is still rising.
For instance, Britain only produces one-tenth of the honey it consumes while 22 tonnes are imported from other honey producing countries. Although the ban on Chinese honey in the European market was lifted three years ago, consumers in EU countries still want organic honey, which Kenya has.
"The selling point for Kenyan honey is that it is organic," says Mr Korir. Ironically, we cannot produce enough. According to Export Promotion Council statistics, US imported Sh3 million ($49,000) worth of honey last year-four times more than it had imported in 2006.
At the villages, small-scale beekeepers are using the traditional log beehive that produces about 15 kilogrammes of honey a year compared to the Langstroth beehive, an American innovation that can produce 40 kilogrammes.
But honey production is seasonal and this makes it hard to predict the amount harvested.
Honey production picks up during the months of May to July when rainfall is experienced in most parts of the country, but prolonged drought has also affected production. During the drought of 2005-2006, Honey Care Africa fell short by 58 per cent of the honey it was expecting to produce.
Recent environmental destruction has also seen the disappearance of bee colonies. To make a log beehive, a tree has to be felled and the trunk hollowed out.
Honey Care, one of the leading producers, has been hard-hit. Their best selling brand, Acacia honey, is produced from acacia nectar from Burnt Forest. However, the acacia trees have been cut down, says the general manager of Honey Care Africa, Margaret Mimoh.
As a result, the colonies in these areas have reduced because there are no flowers to attract the bees while water catchment areas are gone.
The company is now trying to get those interested in beekeeping to take up environmental conservation as well. They are also working with NGOs on conservation projects .
According to a report done by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 2001, the country's potential for apiculture development was estimated at over 100,000 tonnes of honey and 10,000 of bee wax. At the time, only about one fifth of this potential was being exploited.
But technology is still dodging local producers. "A farmer can harvest honey twice a year and if the technology is ideal, it can even be three times," says Mr Ikunyua. He says one of the ways to increase production is to bring the cost of the modern beehive down.
His association is working with the Kenya Agricultural Productivity Programme (KAPP) and Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Produce (KENFAP) to get grants from the World Bank to provide loans to farmers interested in apiculture.
Some of the farmers are still using log beehives because they find the Sh4,500 Langstroth beehive too expensive and the Kenyan Top-bar beehive needs too much attention. Mr Ikunyua believes the cost can be cut to Sh3,000. "Some companies have monopolised this and we need to start making our own," says Mr Ikunyua.
He said companies give the farmers the beehives on loan, the amount of which is deducted from the honey produced. The log beehive does not produce much and makes quality control difficult. With most of the beekeeping areas largely supported by NGOs, apiculture is mostly seen as a cultural activity rather than a commercial one.
Since 1982, Mr Athanas Matheka had always wanted to own a factory. Trained in food technology and specialised in food engineering, the desire had always been eating at him as he worked as a food technologist for various companies, including East Africa Industries, now Unilever.
Being a businessman at heart, he soon opened a supermarket in Umoja Estate in Nairobi and called it Green Forest. His customers kept asking for good Kenyan honey because the shelves were filled with imported ones.
In 1999, while on a visit to Kitui South, he found plenty of honey at a local supermarket and bought three buckets of 33 kilogrammes each. He took the honey to his house and refined and repackaged it using simple containers from the supermarket. He then made his own labels called GreenForest Honey and took the honey to his supermarket.
To his surprise, the 99 kilogramme packet was sold out in four days. He began to go to Kitui every weekend and came back with 500 kilogrammes of honey every time. After two years in the honey business, he closed his supermarket to concentrate on what he says gave him 50 per cent profit. He moved to a bigger house when he got space at the Kenya Industrial Estates.
"The business has been good so far, but I fear that might not last as the supplies are running low," he says.
He got a taste of this fear in 2004 when a prolonged drought hit the country and his "honey well" dried up. He now imports the commodity from Tanzania to satisfy customers' demands.
It is so high that sometimes supplies run short and he cannot supply outside urban areas. Most of the honey is consumed in Nairobi. Apart from Tanzania, he has travelled to other places to buy honey.
He has also established contacts with farmers from other countries by attending the Apimondia Foundation, an apiculture organisation that organises global meetings every two years. In these events, he is able to know what is happening in the global honey industry.
"I got to know that Kenya has a lot of potential for honey production," says Mr Matheka.
He says one of the problems of low production in the country is failure to move from cultural to commercial apiculture. During his travels, he has visited commercial beekeepers with more than 1,000 hives.
During winter, these farmers take the bees indoors and feed them with syrup or molasses. "We need to think outside the box," he says. He regrets that the government has left it to the non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) to encourage farmers to practice apiculture.
For production to improve, the Government needs to recognise apiculture it," he says. "We need people to work with us and support us to mobilise the farmers to produce more," he says. There, however, is a disconnect with the service providers, researchers, producers and the market.
One step he took to remedy this was to come together with some honey producers to form the Kenya Honey Council.
Matheka says farmers need beehives and the right equipment to produce quality honey. Apart from this, insufficient knowledge on beekeeping is also a problem.
"It is high time we started taking care of the bees," he says. In neighbouring Tanzania, there are national bee reserves but here people cut down trees for charcoal, forcing the bees to migrate. But he believes that there is time for the current situation can be reversed and production increased.
In 2004, taught him one thing that he needed to diverse and not to depend on a single product. Now he is looking to cashew nuts.