Primarily a sweetener, then medicine, an antiseptic, and a cosmetic. The gold amber-coloured liquid is one of the most multifunctional things to exist. And also one of the most talked about. A simple online search of the ‘liquid gold’ presents a plethora of articles on its usage and benefits, as it is what people are often interested in. However, what is not talked about enough, especially in Nigeria where economic diversification has been a popular tune, is its huge economic potential.
According to a 2017 news report, Nigeria produces less than three percent of its potential honey output. We rely on importation to meet local demand when there is so much potential for commercial honey farming. Last year, the director-general of the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) said Nigeria is capable of generating at least $10 billion yearly from trading honey and other hive products.
Apiculture, the technical term for beekeeping or honey farming, is a highly lucrative business, one that requires little capital to start. But a lot of people are not aware of this, and some are ill-informed and scared to engage in it. Hence, Nigeria’s honey industry remains latent due to a lack of recognition, education, and participation. Occasional announcements in the news in the last few years shows that the Nigerian government recognizes the economic potential of the industry, yet not enough attention is given to it.
Some states offer apiculture as a Skill Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development (SAED) program to corp members during the mandatory youth service year. Corp members are encouraged to learn beekeeping and given lands as incentives for apiaries. While this is commendable, it is not enough to lift the country’s honey industry out of latency. More needs to be done to encourage and promote participation in the industry, especially in terms of education, regulation, and policy.
These are the sentiments echoed by Olawunmi Omope, an apiarist and entrepreneur. Olawunmi is the owner of Mercee Farms Honey, a business she started a year ago during her service year in Osun State. The 24-year-old was moved to take up apiculture as her SAED program after a convincing speech by the program’s facilitator in camp. Even then, there was no plan to put what she’s learned to use, at least not this soon, but a last-minute impulsive thought has placed Omope on a fulfilling and lucrative business path.
Why beekeeping? Why did you decide this is what you want to do?
You know, during camp, SAED facilitators often come around to talk about what they do and why we should choose their program. I was going to go for public speaking, but then a facilitator known as Mr. B. came and talked about beekeeping, honey production, and the benefits and uses of raw honey. I liked how he talked about it and thought that I should do it. I wanted to learn more, so I joined the program in camp and went on to pay for post-camp training.
Wearing the bee suit is not fun but once we started harvesting honey, there was this joy that “this is very beautiful.” I think that was when I realized that I want to keep bees. Also, bees are very important for the ecosystem; they pollinate most of the flowers. We need them. By keeping bees, you are doing something for the ecosystem, and you are also making money. It’s a win-win.
I also discovered the usage and benefits of original honey and why people adulterate it. Honey is used to treat injuries and burns. Now, imagine using adulterated honey for that, would it not worsen things? So I thought, “Let me put something original in the market. I may not be able to meet every demand, but I can do something.” This is why I stuck with beekeeping.
So when did you launch your business?
I started this time last year.
After the [beekeeping] training in camp, I was to return to Lagos for a short break before service began proper. I contemplated taking honey home to sell. I thought it would make no sense for me not to since I’d learned all there is to learn. I decided to try my hands with 10 litres of honey. I got plastics, repackaged the honey, and displayed it at my mum’s pharmacy. I also went to meet a church member about the possibility of retailing honey at his supermarket. He said he would, but only if it’s branded. So my father created branded stickers for me and that solved that issue.
After my break was over, I was to return to Oshogbo but I still had some bottles of honey left, so I took them to the office. Back then, I was a graduate intern at Leadway, so I took the rest of it to the office and I sold it all. It then dawned on me that this is good business. People kept requesting. Once they saw that it is original honey, they kept requesting. And that was how I started my business.
You said you bought honey to sell in Lagos. That was you just testing the waters, right? Because now you’re a beekeeper.
Oh yes. Yes.
Okay. So take me through the process of beekeeping and honey production.
Starting a beehive is not difficult. Some people keep bees at the back of their houses, but I do not support that. The most important thing [to note] is that bees stay in a place that is conducive for them. You build a hive. Some people make traditional hives, but what is common in these parts is top bar hives. You place the hive or hives close to a tree. Bees need nectar to survive, hence the necessity of having hives close to trees. The tree shouldn’t cover it, but it should provide a shade.
Once you have your hive where it should be, bait it with honey or honey products. Some people bait their hives with sugar syrup. You know, bees are insects, they like sweet things. The honey or sugar syrup attracts them to the hive. If they like the place, if it’s conducive, they’ll colonize the hive. And once they do, you’re in business because they get to work immediately.
They start by building bee combs. Once that’s done, the queen bee starts laying eggs because having a large number of bees is important, especially worker bees. Worker bees are female and they do most of the work. There are three categories of bees in every hive; the queen bee, drones (male bees), and worker bees. Once the queen bee is done with production, the bees start producing honey.
What they do is get nectar from flowers, pollinating them in the process. The nectar mixes with enzymes in the body of the bees, then it’s regurgitated into the comb cells built earlier. It becomes honey after some days, and once that happens, the bees seal it. This is when you can harvest it. It is important to wait till the cells are sealed before harvesting. Bees are quite intelligent; their process of production is advanced.
By the way, the honey we harvest is their food; food meant for seasons when they can’t go out to source for nectar and produce honey. Honey is often harvested with the comb; the cells are unsealed, then the honey is extracted. Large batches are harvested with the use of an extractor. But if the honey is not a lot, you can use a muslin fabric as an extractor. The comb itself can be used to make candles.
According to some account, other worker bees re-ingest the processed nectar initially deposited in the comb cells, adding more enzymes and further ripening the honey. “When the honey is fully ripened, it is deposited into a honeycomb cell one last time and capped with a thin layer of beeswax.”
Another account says honeybees pass collected nectar to other honeybees by regurgitating it into their mouths. “This regurgitation process is repeated until the partially digested nectar is finally deposited into a honeycomb… Then bees get to work fanning the honeycomb with their wings to speed up the evaporation process.” When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bees seal it.
What are some of the challenges/issues with beekeeping?
Some of the common problems that beekeepers face are late or delayed hive colonization and theft by honey hunters. Because the hive is not theirs [the hunters’], they are careless with it; they drive bees away using fire instead of smoke, killing some in the process, then they steal the honey and you’ll have to start all over.
To harvest honey, you ought to use a smoker, not fire. Fire devalues the nutrients in honey. You know, bees are quite sharp and coordinated, but when you smoke the environment, they become confused, disorganized, and will therefore not attack you [as you try to harvest honey].
Farmers are also an issue. They don’t like bees. They fear them. A lot of people do. And I do not understand why. Maybe they’ve been stung by bees. I think once you’ve been stung by a bee, you live in the fear of it and do not want to experience it ever again. So, farmers don’t like bees at all; if your hive is close to a farm, they [farmers] might destroy it on purpose. I think people do not understand bees. You can have a beehive around you, as long as you do not bother the hive, the bees won’t attack you.
What is the honey industry like in Nigeria?
There’s a lot of adulteration, it’s really hard to find raw honey. When I advertised my honey on Twitter and started getting enquiries, the first question I’m asked is, “Is it original [unadulterated]? Are you sure it is original?” It made me realize how much the market is saturated with adulterated honey. That period, I sold honey to over 40 people and only one person came back to say my honey was adulterated. His reason for thinking that was because of the viscosity of the honey. But the truth is that the viscosity of honey is dependent on the environment, so it does not ascertain the originality of honey. For example, honey from northern Nigeria is thicker due to the dry weather and open hives. The nectar is also different from what bees would get in the southwest.
Also, people adulterate honey with different things; water, sugar syrup, or corn syrup. The properties and consistency of these liquids vary and affects the viscosity of the honey differently, so it’s hard to ascertain raw honey by its viscosity, colour, or even a fire test. The source of nectar determines the colour of honey, if honey is adulterated with water, the fire test won’t work. But if it’s adulterated with corn or sugar syrup, it will. There are so many factors that affect the colour and viscosity of honey, so I had to explain this to the man. The only way to test the rawness of honey is by conducting a scientific test.
The Nigerian honey industry is saturated with adulterated honey. Some retailers get raw honey directly from beekeepers and go on to adulterate it. And this is not just a Nigerian problem; honey is adulterated all over the world because it’s in such high demand.
But besides the issue of adulteration, the honey industry is quite lucrative. There is so much demand. Honey is multifunctional, so you will always have buyers. If anyone is interested in producing honey, my advice is that they go ahead, as long as it’s unadulterated. If you can keep bees, then do that. It pays more. You’ll be helping to expand the network of beekeepers, thereby increasing honey production and supply. Because even as a beekeeper, you can’t meet the demand, so you have to liaise with other beekeepers. Plus, you’ll be helping the ecosystem by keeping bees. So, if you are looking to go into a business, you should consider beekeeping and honey production. It’s a good industry.
Do you think that the honey industry is getting enough attention and support from the government?
I do not think so. I just started researching grants for agriculture and I don’t think there’s any for beekeeping. I don’t know how many states in the country include beekeeping in their list of SAED programs. If Osun state didn’t have it as part of their program, I wouldn’t have known anything about beekeeping.
There isn’t a lot of beekeepers. I think the issue is that people are afraid. Perhaps a campaign demystifying bees as dangerous insects will help curb that fear. I’ve heard a lot of people say they can never keep bees because they are afraid of them. It is obvious people do not understand bees. I think if the government decides to educate people and increase awareness on apiculture, more people will participate.
Sometimes, when I’m out of honey, I have to wait for days to get from another beekeeper. Once honey is harvested, it sells out fast and that’s it. Honey is only harvested twice a year, and once it’s sold out for a season, that’s it. So the more beekeepers there are, the better. And as a beekeeper, the more hives you own, the better. Hence the need for increased awareness and participation in the industry.
With your current knowledge of the market and industry, would you have done anything differently when you started?
If I knew how in demand honey is, I would have started beekeeping immediately my training ended. I didn’t start early, and when I did, I wasn’t serious about it. If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken the business seriously. I would have created more hives, and that would have benefitted me a lot. I currently have just five hives.
What is your vision for Mercee Farms Honey? How do you plan to scale?
Currently, I’m looking out for grants, so I can get an acre of land for my hives in a secure place. The land I currently have my hives on is not mine, but it’s a secure place. So, if I can get a land of my own and place about a hundred hives on it, that will make me very happy. That is my current goal. And that’s how I plan to scale. Some people have said they want to invest in my business, but I’m sceptical about investments at this stage. I’d rather get grants.
I also intend to get distributors in Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt, and Ibadan. These are places where I get the most demand for my honey.
What government policies would create a better environment for your business?
I’d say NAFDAC. If the government can make the process of getting a NAFDAC number less stringent, that’d be great. I went to get a NAFDAC number for my honey early on this year and I left feeling dejected. Getting a NAFDAC number is like a battle. I was asked to get a three-bedroom apartment; one of the rooms will be a cloakroom, the other two must only be used for honey production. I have to get a certified microbiologist to work with me… They were asking for a lot of things that I cannot yet afford. I know the aim is to have a hygienic space for production, but I think the requirement is a lot for a startup. I’ll be spending about a million naira to get or set up all that is required. I don’t think that’s reasonable.
Also, the cost of conducting a scientific test to ascertain whether or not honey is adulterated is quite expensive. To test a batch of honey costs N30,000 in Lagos. In Kano, it costs N15,000. And honey is often harvested in batches. Say I have to conduct a test for the sake of exportation, it means I have to do separate tests for the different batches, N30,000 each. That’s expensive. If the government can reduce the cost of the test, that’d help. That way, individuals can conduct tests themselves to know whether or not the honey they are buying is adulterated.
Did Covid-19 affect your business in any way?
Oh yes, it did. During the nationwide lockdown in the second quarter of the year, I couldn’t sell. There was no movement, so for about two months, I could not do anything. I’d sold all my honey earlier, and I could not get more from other beekeepers. But there’s movement now, so I’m back in business.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Knowing that I have deliveries to make, that someone is expecting to receive Mercee Farms Honey. You know, I don’t want to mess up. I want to deliver on time. That’s what pushes me. I have my brand reputation to protect. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m unserious.
What gives you the most satisfaction as an entrepreneur?
Getting nice reviews. I always ask my customers for feedback. And I’m always happy to get their reviews. Some people even call me or tag me when someone says they need honey on Twitter. And it makes me really happy that people trust my product.
What is your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting, not necessarily in the honey industry?
It gets really difficult sometimes; I wanted to quit at some point. But I kept going. So, keep pushing, because you never know when the much-needed breakthrough will happen. Keep being consistent. You don’t have to start big. You can start small. For example, I started my business with 10 litres of honey. So, start small, and you’ll make progress. However, ensure you’re giving people the best quality of whatever service or product you are offering.
Also, don’t spend your business money. Don’t. I think that’s the worst thing that can happen to your business. It can be difficult to separate your profit from money meant for other things, so I advise you get a separate account for it.
I guess that will help you measure your growth as well.
Yes, you’re right.
Note: The conversation in this article was edited for length and clarity. However, you can listen to the complete interview on our podcast channel.