A billion more bees may sound like an audacious dream, but in 2017, WE Charity began a pilot project in beekeeping, launching sticky start-ups for entrepreneurs in Narok County, Kenya. Caring for the humble honeybee is not a simple task. The program required training and marshalling of community resources in a region where farmers typically harvest wheat and maize. Beekeeping, though practiced, was rare, which put honey in great demand, used both for its flavor and for its antibacterial properties. There was a lot to learn, but prospects were sweet.
Before the queen bee and her colony could arrive, there was much to do in the way of preparation. It was akin to a royal visit, with special construction, sourcing of equipment and etiquette training. A bee production, demonstration and training center was built at the WE College School of Agriculture, a hub for would-bee beekeepers to practice and observe the bees in their natural habitat. The center also grounded beekeeper training in WE Charity’s existing Food Security Pillar, providing access to other agricultural training and nutritional information. For the bee program, experts offer lessons on bee biology, honey harvesting, colony management, seasonal management and equipment use. Though the bees do much of the work, honey does not simply process and bottle itself.
Centrifuge machines extract honey from the combs while keeping them intact. The amber liquid is then bottled, packaged and labelled, even kept warm and gooey with a honey warmer. Beekeepers work in groups, and also receive harvesting gear, buckets, and the full get-up—beekeeper’s suits to protect from swarming armies defending their queen. Of course, each of the groups receive hives—since 2017, WE Charity has distributed 400 hives to various community groups. Groups also receive bees, imported from other areas, plus regular training to care for the apiary and everything needed to produce and sell honey to support families in regions with few other job prospects.
WE Charity is part of a global effort to add one billion bees to the global population. And though queen bees will reign over these colonies, the program was first targeted primarily to men.
The Billion Bee Initiative was launched in rural Kenya, with the support of philanthropist David Richardson. Richardson has long been worried about the decline in bee and other pollinator populations. The Billion Bee Initiative has provided more than 400 hives to community members, including former Maasai Warriors, so they can become beekeepers and honey producers, giving them a renewed sense of purpose, something they lost when they stopped hunting lions or other game for food. You can read more about this initiative, here.
WE Charity has a long history of women's empowerment programs, including ME to WE Artisans. Historically, Maasai women in the region did all of their beadwork by hand, making the artisans program a better fit for women based on local traditions. With Artisans, they crafted and sold jewelry in a wider market to boost household incomes. Culturally, men and youth are the typical beekeepers, so hives were distributed first to men’s groups and youth groups, in keeping with local customs. For many men, the bees offer a chance to run their own business for the first time.
Soon, with the success of the men’s beekeeping groups, women joined and the groups expanded—every member bringing them closer to the goal of attracting one billion bees. And there were benefits for human collaboration, too. Beekeeping is an activity proven to bring people together and promote teamwork. The program worked to actively integrate participation and collaboration from both men and women in the region, an inclusive approach that acted as a community empowerment tool for both genders.
Carolyn Moraa, WE Charity’s program manager in Kenya, has a saying about gender equality and economic empowerment: “In order to have strong women leaders, you must have good fathers, good husbands and good brothers,” she says. “In order to empower women, you must ensure that men are partners in that empowerment.”
Outside of the formal trainings at the bee production center, individual members have taken to training their neighbors and friends, encouraging more beekeepers and widening the scope of the program’s social impact.
In addition to direct beneficiaries of the program, who boost household incomes with honey sales and provide more opportunities for their families, there have been some sweet side benefits. Bees are pollinators, an essential part of any ecosystem and especially of farming communities. Increased pollination boosts harvest yields to increase food security and nutrition intake, making families healthier. Honeybee pollinators are especially important in African countries, where, on average, 80 per cent of indigenous flowering plants need bees.
The bees have also facilitated better relationships between humans and other species in Narok neighborhoods. Fences built to protect hives keep animals away from gardens, reducing harmful interactions with elephants and other interlopers who can destroy crops. The beekeepers are anxious to get back to their hives and their soon-to-be one billion bees, but for now, they have other tasks.
Recently, in the face of COVID-19, Kenya’s beekeepers have come together for a different purpose, putting the beekeeping project on hold to volunteer on the frontlines of WE Charity’s public health campaign. These small business owners, already leaders in their communities, are going door-to-door to raise awareness about coronavirus, bringing warnings and information on best practices and physical distancing to remote homes with little communication infrastructure. They are like worker bees, part of larger plan.
WE Charity’s COVID-19 emergency response strategy is a three-tiered approach. The first is community outreach, with local volunteers spreading word, as well as a radio campaign, to raise public awareness. Within the first few days, they had reached 11,000 people with warnings about the virus, instructions on handwashing and physical distancing. The second is food security. Keeping people healthy, well-nourished and strong is one of the best defences against a virus that attacks weak immune systems, with fatalities more likely for those already suffering from disease or malnutrition. To help people stave off the disease, seeds are distributed to grow more crops, in addition to soap and sanitizer. Finally, in what is hopefully a last-resort plan, Baraka Hospital has been outfitted with a field hospital, with tents and cots set up to house coronavirus patients and keep them quarantined away from their villages.
Slowly, as business and social activity returns post-pandemic, the beekeepers will reunite with their hives and get closer their goal to attract one billion bees. With the program’s success in Kenya, plans are in the works to replicate the beekeeping project in WE Charity’s partner communities around the world—in Ethiopia, Haiti and Ecuador in the coming years. Soon, the colonies will cross borders.