Switching from charcoal burning to beekeeping
Hundreds of thousands of Africans still make a living cutting down forests to burn to make charcoal for cooking. Apart from indoor air pollution, the practice has led to widespread deforestation, landslides and land degradation. But as more of the continent is restricted or even declared off-limits to tree cutting, the practice is losing much of its glow.
It’s not that Africans are unaware of the problem. As Jean Claude Ntwari, a former charcoal producer for ten years in Rwanda admits, “We understood the ramifications of cutting down trees on the environment, but then charcoal production was lucrative.”
Ntwari says he abandoned charcoal burning after being taught about the effects of climate change and environmental degradation by local organisations and after learning about beekeeping as an alternative. Last year alone, more than twenty beekeeping cooperatives were formed just in Rwanda’s Eastern Province and its surroundings.
Besides, charcoal burning was becoming less and less viable as the Rwandan government has set about discouraging tree cutting. As Jean Bahizi Gakunzi, a former renowned charcoal trader, observes, “It’s tough, strenuous work, and labour-intensive. You don’t get free time; you travel long distances to fell the trees, cut them into sizeable logs, arrange them in a kiln and harvest the charcoal [and then] carry the bags to the market. Most times you do all this feeling you are committing some crime because charcoal burning has a lot of restrictions, sometimes prohibiting where to cut trees, barring you to burn and you do most work hiding.”
The 34-year-old is now a trained beekeeper with Copanyaka cooperative and a bicycle mechanic. He told Rwanda Dispatch, “I picked beekeeping since it would get me time to engage in other income-generating activities like mechanics. I always had trouble with authorities, today I feel like a model citizen living in peace with everyone.”
With 15 beehives, he harvests about 35-45 kilos of honey a season, making around US$300 at the same time he continues earning from his mechanical repair business.
Norbert Nduwayezu, who chairs the 23-member Abanyamurava Cooperative, explains that many charcoal burners such as Ntwari have joined beekeeping cooperatives due to restrictions on tree cutting. Charcoal traders also run the risk that their bags and bicycles will be impounded; those without permits are often stopped and sometimes traders will resort to bribery, which eats into their incomes. “We were offered alternative skills in apiculture and provided support to start a cooperative in 2018,” he notes, adding that his co-op now owns more than 300 traditional beehives, with each member having at least 14 of them.
Ntwari says hanging three to four beehives on a tree provides a continuous income, but cutting that tree takes years to grow and unless people have permits they are fined. Instead, from his 14 beehives, he harvests twice in year and gets more than 28 kilos of honey per harvest, yielding at least US$120 annually.
Another beekeeper is Regina Mukakalisa, a former intermediary in the charcoal trade and now a member of Catika beekeeping co-op, who owns 20 beehives and has a number of other farming activities. She says many traders are willing to abandon the trade but lack information on what to replace it with, adding she’s “no longer into the smuggling business”, as she puts it.
To help beekeepers, various organisations such as the non-profit Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) — which relies on volunteers to empower rural communities in Rwanda — teach how to build modern beehives, acquire equipment for harvesting to boost honey production, and improve the harvesting process.
Samuel Habimana, another former charcoal burner who left the charcoal trade after the government required permits and harvesting in national parks was restricted, has been a member of Koabimu beekeeping co-op since 2018. After he received modern beekeeping equipment, he went from earning around US$36 per harvest to more than US$250, which he says is sustainable for him. “At first, I didn’t know how to make beehives or extract honey using modern machines. I didn’t know how to look after bees properly, but with the modern hives it is easier,” he notes.
Likewise, Faustin Turikumana, the president of Coproma Cooperative, says his co-op received 30 beehives, machinery and two beekeeping suits from VSO, after which its harvest increased from 1,000 to more than 4,640 tonnes of honey per season.
Last year, The APIARY, a social impact enterprise keen to bring Rwandan honey to the world, trained beekeeper cooperatives in six districts, promoting investing in conventional beekeeping to both protect the environment and improve livelihoods. Abigael Ingabire from The APIARY says, “We worked with 28 beekeepers in our train-the-trainer program; the members then share knowledge and skills with others.” The program equips beekeepers with modern practical skills; materials; what characterises a good site; how to transfer bees from traditional to modern beehives; apiary management; preventing bee diseases and pest management; how to control and improve honey quality; queen rearing and how to expand bee colonies; and improving the value of bee products such as beeswax.
I picked beekeeping since it would get me time to engage in other income-generating activities like mechanics. I always had trouble with authorities, today I feel like a model citizen living in peace with everyone.
Jean Bahizi Gakunzi
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