Sibongiseni Mdamba pacifies the bees in one of his hives with smoke. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu
Sibongiseni Mdamba pacifies the bees in one of his hives with smoke. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu

A development project that involves about 100 beekeepers has allowed a community in northern KwaZulu-Natal to turn honey into money, and invest it in vegetable gardens, poultry businesses and savings.

This has paid off for them during the tough times since Covid-19 struck.

In 2016, the semi-rural community of Sokhulu were introduced to beekeeping through a partnership between paper manufacturer Sappi and the African Honey Bee programme, in an attempt to stop forest fires caused by people smoking out hives in plantations in search of honey.

Fires were costing Sappi "millions", said William Mavuso, the African Honey Bee programme operations manager.

This year the community savoured the sweet success of the project as 1,600 people harvested 5t of honey from the new beehives and was sold to a local honey brand. Communities in KwaZulu-Natal earned close to R360,000 from beekeeping.

"Living at home is hard, so when a group of people say they want to help earn a living we are always in," said Busisiwe Ngcobo. "They taught us how to make business plans, which would help me earn a living because I am a single parent."

To supplement their income while waiting for the honey harvest - which happens once a year - the community were taught the basics of vegetable and chicken farming. Now 85 of the 100 families are growing vegetables, 27 are producing eggs and 39 are producing chickens for meat.

"With this money from the honey, I was able to do my security guard training, start a chicken business and I have also started building my family home," said Sibongiseni Mdamba, who made R10,000 from his harvest. "My family are happy to see the results of what I am doing and my dad is even interested in joining.

"I received training on how to build the hive and started catching bees. All I have to do is make sure the area around the hive is clean," said Mdamba.

For pensioner Regina Mkhwanazi, the programme has helped revive her love for gardening. She now has a lush garden of greens to feed her family.

"They taught us how to make the bee houses. I wanted to see what bees could do. They taught us how honey makes medicine and beauty products. They then taught us how to grow gardens and do chicken farming," said Mkhwanazi.

"I look after my garden because I like eating fresh vegetables, and with the gardening . I am even able to feed my neighbours."

In addition to the gardens and eggs, the Sokhulu beekeepers have started their own multiple savings groups, administered by the African Honey Bee programme via the Post Office. The groups of 20 meet monthly, and each member can save in multiples of R100 or R50. Members can borrow money, at a 10% interest rate, which they have to pay back in three months.

From the savings group, Ngcobo has been able to renovate her house and put her son through college.

"We don't have to go to loan sharks, we can help each other out financially and buy food. When the harvest money comes we are also able to save it," said Ngcobo, whose biggest saving to date has been R12,000.

Sappi Southern Africa spokesperson Mpho Lethoko said most of the beekeeping families participate in the Sappi Khulisa supplier programme and are already part of the valuable forestry supply chain.

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