For nearly two decades, Frijesio Alibankoha chased swarms of honeybees every day in the steamy Ugandan bush for survival. Alone, barefoot and without any protective clothing, he used a panga (machete) to carve out hives in the local omurama trees, then firewood to smoke out the stubborn insects that had taken up residence there.
"In my village there's a small bird that cries and cries and feeds on the young bees," recalls Alibankoha, 60, who turned honey hunter to support his family after being made redundant from his job as a civil servant. "Wherever it stops, that means there's bees there. Then we hunt for honey."
At dusk the custodian of nature would return home, boil water and wipe down his face with a cloth to relieve the pain from the stings. He made 350 Ugandan shillings (less than $1) in his first harvesting season. It wasn't bad money back then in the 1980s and '90s, he says, but nothing compared to the opportunity he tapped into in 2011 after hearing a radio ad by Malaika Honey calling on farmers to sell them their honey.
Set up by Australian Simon Turner five years earlier, the social business aims to eradicate poverty in rural Ugandan communities through beekeeping (apiculture). He is just one of over 1000 farmers registered across Uganda that Malaika supports.
On his 12 hectares of land in Bigando village, in Uganda's west, Alibankoha now has cassava, chickens, bananas, coffee, beans, pigs, goats, cocoa and bees. Honey is his sweetest business. From the last harvesting season Alibankoha, whose four sons also earn a living through apiculture, made about 1 million Ugandan shillings ($417) from 400 kilograms of honey.
"It's complicated work as you need a lot of land," Alibankoha says, today sporting a two-piece khaki bee suit with green netting, white leather gloves and white wellies, as he holds a galvanised iron smoker, which he uses to calm the bees. "This work has to come from the heart. But it's the most profitable by far."
Alibankoha claims his property now boasts 230 hives, some of them made using tree stems while some are more sophisticated, and a modest brick house "built from bees", a product of his hard work over the past 31 years.
Originally from the Melbourne suburb of Hampton, Malaika managing director Simon Turner, 40, has lived in Uganda since 2005 and says the east African country's expansive rural environment provides tremendous potential for people to keep bees.
"There's a large population here and there's a lot of rural-urban migration," he says. "People are coming to [Ugandan capital] Kampala, but there are no jobs in Kampala. Now they can have a good life out in the village doing beekeeping."
Malaika's "Not Tonight Honey", which comes in four flavours (multi-floral, acacia, wild forest, and cinnamon & cocoa), is sold in Uganda along with "wonder drug" propolis, a natural medicine that bees make to disinfect the hive. The company, which employs 16 Ugandans and has four offices across the country, also exports their products to Australia, Japan and Korea.
Turner originally came to Africa intending to purchase honey after becoming involved in a UK trading company while working as a graphic designer and researching the market. "You get a bit deskbound," he says. "Also I found it a bit meaningless in a way, some of the things, like selling margarine or what have you. [Now] we're on the ground beekeeping and I'm using my skills in design, marketing and sales to really represent who we are and what we do."
Despite the company's success, Turner admits he was stung by some dishonest types when he first arrived in Africa. "These guys told me 'We can get you the honey'," says Turner. "I sent them some money. When I came back [to Uganda] they'd done nothing. But [in the meantime] I'd built up a lot of partnerships."
Turner said the entire financial surplus of Malaika - which means "angel" in Swahili - is reinvested for greater social impact, rather than private profit. Bees account for 24 per cent of the annual earnings of Uganda's agricultural products. But getting development bodies to understand the meaning and importance of social business has been a challenge. As Turner says: "They say, 'You're a business, we won't help you'. But now the mentality's actually changing because they're seeing businesses as the mainstay of sustainable development."
Turner says in Uganda many women are embracing beekeeping to support themselves and their families. Even in the country's more remote districts there are now female beekeeping groups.
Joyce Tibakunirwa, 49, was barely scraping by selling bananas, but approached Malaika after seeing a neighbour benefitting from beekeeping. She now has four hives and through apiculture can keep her five kids in school.
"I'm old now, but at least I can get some money through bees," she says through an interpreter, beaming as she stands proudly next to one of her hives wearing a traditional brown Ugandan gomesi gown with a large blue sash and high shoulder pads.
Meeting people like Tibakunirwa heartens Turner. "There are a lot of thieves here, a lot of bad people," he says. "It really puts you down. But when you meet these honest people, you kind of love them."
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