Dying to make a living – Beekeeping in the dry north of Kenya

By Christopher Davey

(First published in the Beekeepers Quarterly.)

Picture yourself in the remoter settings of ‘The Constant Gardener’ – the blindingly bright, hot, dusty scenes in the film of the book by le Carre.  In 2008 a couple of us of tried to set up a project to work with beekeepers in that same area.  We failed.  We didn’t even get started …

Going to Turkana
Going to Turkana. It’s a long rough two days journey from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

There were 23 beekeepers in Kaputir village, but now there are 20.  Their hives are mostly in woodland on the banks of the river Turkwel, a meandering artery of water than runs through the desert.  The desert’s expanding in this remote part of northwest Kenya.  Like many communities around here Kaputir has had a few successes, and more than its fair share of tragedies.  There are many similar stories of beekeepers dying in this part of Eastern Africa – near to Sudan [north] and Uganda [west].

This is a tough place to live.  It’s sparsely populated, very hot, very dry and sometimes dangerous.  These people are nomadic pastoralists living in a vast arid area at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley.  The Turkwel flows into a crocodile-infested lake that is partly freshwater and partly salt.  Both the lake (the ‘jade sea’ crossing into Ethiopia) and the region have the same name as the people – Turkana.

The Turkana don’t get much from outside.  Government advisory services are poorly resourced, and the infrastructure (roads and electricity) is virtually non-existent.  There are livestock and veterinary staff based in the various headquarters.  Cattle, camels, sheep and goats are the basis of the local economy – and one reason why most villages have home-guards (a kind of armed neighbourhood-watch) to protect livestock from raiders.  A fair number of non-governmental agencies work here, and food aid has kept people going through drought and famine for much of the last 40 years.  In reality many families are dependant on relief food pretty-much all of the time.

Turkana home guards
Turkana villagers and home guards

The Kaputir beekeepers think of themselves as “Dorobo” – the honey hunting community that (in some tribes) are spear-makers and hunter-gatherers rather than herders.  They are experienced beekeepers.  They know their work and have a lot of traditional knowledge.  Dickson Edapal and Ekuwam Auche showed us the group’s two well-managed apiaries.  Both were under acacia trees by the river near to members’ homes.  The hives were hanging on wires about 1.5 meters off the ground, and were protected from ants with wood ash scattered around the base of the poles.  Nineteen of the thirty hives were occupied.  (It was December.)   Dickson and Ekuwam were clearly comfortable working near to the bees, and they have no concerns about beekeeping despite the death of Mr Nayoto Lotipo.  “He died from bee stings when harvesting his hives in April” Dickson said.  The group’s (one) bee suit had been spoiled, so Nayato went without.  These are Apis mellifera scutellata.  “They can be very angry especially when it’s hot and they have honey.”

The group has Langstroth and top bar hives in their group apiaries.  Twenty were donated by a development organisation.  “We think the Langstroth box for honey [the super] is not big enough for storing surplus honey, especially as our area by the river can produce so much” said Dickson in Swahili.  “The organisation gave us these hives but didn’t tell us how to use them.  Now we know we need special equipment for this; but we have bigger problems.”  He explained that theft is their greatest challenge.  “People steal the honey; and after that the honey badger is the biggest pest because it also attacks our hives.  These are things we have to sort out.”

“We need harvesting equipment” Dickson told us.  All of the Kaputir beekeepers have their own bees.  Most are kept in traditional hollow logs, and between them they have over 500 hives.  “This is a good area for honey, and bees migrate to occupy hives at any time of the year” he said.  “Near to the river there is bee forage at all times, even during the dry seasons.  Bees come.  Some stay.  Some go away again.” said Dickson with a smile.  Hives are harvested in the rain season, with yields up to 15kgs per log hive per harvest.  When there is enough forage they can harvest three or four times with the biggest yields in June, September and December (and perhaps in March) – sometimes 40kgs per hive per year.  The honey is extracted by sieving through cloth to separate out the wax.

Log Hive
Spot the bee hive. A log-hive high in a tree (in the fantastic countryside nearer to Pokot).

In an area where livestock numbers are repeatedly hit by drought, and traditional pastoralism is blighted by climate, insecurity and underinvestment, beekeeping and other alternative livelihoods are potential lifesavers.  Sadly though, there have been other deaths in Kaputir village too.

In 2008 “Mr Ngilamacha Edichan was killed by Pokot cattle raiders while harvesting honey by the river at Lokwar,” Ekuwam Auche said.  Inter-tribal conflict simmers, and cattle-raiding is more lethal when spears are replaced by AK47s.  (Small-arms are so easy to get hold of up here.)  “And Mr Lokimak Lomada was also killed by raiders while heading to his apiary at the aloe farm eight kilometres from the village.”

“The killings have discouraged us from beekeeping, but it’s not stopped us” said Dickson.  It’s important to them, and the deaths have just limited what they can do.  Kaputir members have a lot of experience.  They understand their bees and they know their environment; and risk is clearly part of their daily lives.

They are determined and beekeeping is important to them, but Dickson explained that there is no ready market for honey locally.  Most is used for brewing local beer, and small amounts are sold to individuals in bottles at Kaputir and to passers-by.  One bottle (about three-quarter of a litre) sells at Ksh 100 (about 80p) and 5 kg of semi-processed honey goes for Ksh 1,200 (roughly £10).  “If we had a reliable market we could produce more – much more” said Dickson.  The honey is different in different seasons – dark and strong in some months and lighter and sweeter in others.

Ekuwam Auche said “Another problem is we cannot deliver the honey to where we can sell it.”  Nobody has a vehicle around here and there are no buses of minibuses.  It’s a long way to the town.  There is no storage facility, and honey is kept badly – affecting its quality.  There is no market for comb, and the wax is thrown away because group members don’t know its value.

Kaputir group has a lot of potential.  They are enthusiastic, skilled and committed but like other Turkana beekeepers there are some useful, straightforward and interesting things that can be done to help them keep bees more easily and to make more money.  We looked at the situation and planned out ideas.

Working with beekeepers, the government and NGOs throughout this large area, we wanted to do a number of things – from increasing access to suitable equipment and credit, to linking them with better markets.  And we wanted to make sure beekeepers and development organisations talked to each other properly so beekeepers get the help they need rather than things donors want to provide.  (Beehives weren’t even mentioned in the plans we made with Dickson, Ekuwam and other beekeepers in Turkana district.)

Sadly the price tag for the project was quite high.  It’s not only difficult to live in these areas; it’s difficult to work there too.  And the donors we were talking to?  They were more interested in giving ‘modern’ beehives.  Like lots of well thought out ideas that have been designed with local people, we failed at the second hurdle – we didn’t get the funding to do what the people wanted.

That’s one of the frustrations of development work – planning everything properly and raising hopes and expectations, then letting down the very people you want to help because you can’t get the money.  So while bees are still dying in Europe, beekeepers continue dying in Africa.  If the drought or raiders don’t get them, it seems the bees themselves will.  But nobody has given up yet.  Perhaps we should call it a Constant Beekeeper project.

Like the fate of so many Langstroths, this hive was unoccupied – at least by bees

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