On a Friday in January, Adugna Akal is standing in her unassuming stall, filled with green plastic containers, located in the centre of Lalibela town waiting for clients. The self-employed mother of five children has been selling honey for the past fourteen years, both in crude and pure forms. Adugna, a woman of medium height, with bare forehead, sources her honey from the highland Ayina village, Bugna province, 60 kms south of Lalibela, renowned for its production of natural honey. “The business is not crowded and the income is decent. There are only three recognized traders like me in Lalibela,” she says.
The income she earns from selling honey with her priest husband helps her to provide for her family, even managing to build a house and a souvenir shop. “This year, because of drought, we have less honey coming. The price has also become expensive. But we can’t complain,” she says.
Due to low-capital requirements and a high processing rate, honey production in Ethiopia is rapidly becoming one of the fastest ways to make money. Ethiopia is Africa’s largest producer of honey and the Lalibela area, including Lasta, Bugna and Wag is reputed for its distinctive white and red honey, made from a local blossom of the sage plant family, known as Menteke tree and labiate. The white honey of the region, as that of Tigray, is the most praised in the country and is considered a delicacy. The honey in the region comes straight from the hives, as result it is not smooth and clear, retains all its natural antioxidants, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates, even sometimes dead bees. This makes it a difficult item to sell for foreign tourists. But locally, the demand for honey is really high and there is readily available market.
Alebel Shiferaw, who comes from Genete Maryam village, 22kms south east of Lalibela, said, “Beekeeping has become a good way to tackle the poverty and crop failures I encountered this year. Now I am keeping around five hives, and I produce enough honey to sell it in markets.” For Alebel, business is going so well he is now the principal breadwinner for his family. “This business is guaranteed. It requires very little capital. All that is needed is constructing beehive. When the beehive is filled with honey, the honey is then taken out and sold in the weekly Lalibela market on Saturdays.”
Honey has always had a special place in this ancient and historic town. The founder of the town, St Lalibela, a 12 century Ethiopian monarch renowned for the 11 rock-hewn churches he built, had a connexion with bees and honey. Legend goes that, a dense cloud of bees surrounded the Prince Lalibela at the moment of his birth. His mother chose for him the name Lalibela, meaning “the bees recognize his sovereignty”.
Beekeeping has always been an important activity in the area, as it does in the country. It is estimated that it employs up to two million people nationally. However, it remains largely untapped as an export industry. Experts say only ten percent of the potential is being exploited. The sector is affected by climate change, and poor infrastructure inhibiting access to markets. Most of the honey is still produced using traditional hives and many farmers lack modern technologies. Though the existence of some cooperatives, most individual farmers operate on a small scale, and are unable to determine the quality of their product and potential markets. Therefore, most of the honey is traded informally or used to produce tej, a popular alcohol drink in Ethiopia.
It is no surprise that bars selling honey wine are popular in Lalibela. One is Kassetch Tej Bar, located in small alley in Lalibela town. The bar serves Tej of varying strength to local customers and the Tej in this place has a kind of mead with a slightly bitter taste. The owner says it is because no sugar is mixed. “Just pure honey,” she says. When making Tej, a plant called Gesho is used which has the same effect as hops in beer, though there are also Tej prepared with no hops. A flask of Tej with hops is 5 birr while the other type is six birr.
There is great demand for honey from high-end restaurants, grocery stores in this much-frequented town. Susan Aitchison, owner of the upscale Ben Abeba restaurant in Lalibela catering mostly for European and American tourists, says she buys around six kilos of honey per week for the restaurant. “We often use honey instead of sugar. Because sugar could be difficult to get as it is government controlled. The sugar here is very course and is more and more expensive,” she says.
Susan says one of the popular products at her restaurant is crepe, which she says is invented at the restaurant, served with fresh banana, and local honey. “We don’t do lots of breakfasts. Because we don’t have accommodation yet. But every day, at lunch and dinner time, we give our clients jam, we give them honey. We also serve British-style scones with jam and honey, people love that. The honey here has a lovely flavour,” the Scottish lady says.
In Lalibela market, a jar of honey can fetch almost 80 birr. One kilo of honey costs around 300 birr. In the Addis Ababa market, however, prices vary with one kilogram of Lalibela and Tigray honey selling for 400 birr and other types being sold for as little as 90 birr. Why honey is so expensive in the region?
Tsegaye Melkayu is head of the Bugna region Beekeepers cooperatives, which has 26 members. He says honey has different varieties, “What bees feed on affects the honey they make. Some varieties are valued more for their taste, and others are harder to harvest and thus are priced higher. Smaller producers have to charge more to cover such as the high transport costs,” he says.
According to Tsegaye, the region’s beekeepers are strict in ensuring the honeys purity and potency. They would not in any way feed the bees with sugary syrup. The region, he says, in general has abundant crops and wildflowers that provide the nectar that bees turn into honey. But the lack of rain this past year has ravaged native plants and forced farmers to scale back crop production, leaving fewer places for honeybees to forage. With changing climate, prime tree growing areas in mountains are getting hotter and plants are suffering. Tsegaye’s concern is that regional governments are yet to acknowledge the threat and act to reverse the trend on the apiculture sector.
He called on the government to care more about Ethiopia’s burgeoning honey industry by increasing marketing activities and supporting beekeepers with training courses to improve the production process. In addition, Tsegaye believes that the high prices of beekeeping materials constrain beekeepers to opt for lower quality equipment to the detriment of the bee’s survival.
The Ethiopian government takes honey as one of the strategic products in the country aimed at increasing exports and has made one decision to improve the quality of the honey product in the country. It is helping to fund a new research institute and museum called the Lalibela Mar (honey) Museum in the town.
The head of project Dagnachew Girma walks me through the site being constructed on 84 hectares of land at the cost of 150 million birr. “The museum would have every collection of honey in Ethiopia,” he says proudly. However, it is not going to be only a showcase. “One of the first project would be to do a genetic analysis of the trees and the honey types. “ The museum expected to be inaugurated next June would house a honey processing and purification plant projected to be the most modern honey processing plant in the country, the project head says.
“The honey processing plant would have production capacity of 8 quintals in an hour and would be equipped with art of up-to-date systems of purification and has complete laboratory instruments for quality control. More than 325 people are working on the project to complete it on time,” he explains.
The museum would also have its research centre, finance and other offices, modern bee hives. The project is all financed by the Amahra regional state and the construction is being undertaken by the state owned Amhara Construction Enterprise. When the construction is completed, the project would be transferred to the Ethiopian Ministry of Animal Resources.
With this project the government is hoping to reclaim some of the lost ground in the sweet global honey market.