The rise of a honey by-product, propolis, as a wonder ingredient for the global pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries is driving new sales for farmers across Kenya, with groups and companies alike reporting that the demand for the product is growing faster than any producer can expand.
The hive product, which the bees use to line the nest and combs and to repair cracks in the hive, has become an active ingredient in skin moisturisers, food technologies and medicines due to its ability to blend well with other ingredients.
It is gathered by the beekeeper either by scraping the inside of the hive or by stimulating bees to apply the substance to a plastic sheet with holes in it, which they attempt to fill.
Locally, companies like Tego Foods, Dotino Pharmaceuticals and Lightshade Cosmetics are now buying propolis from local farmers in a newly lucrative business line.
According to Euro Monitor, the price of propolis has risen by up to 70 per cent since the 1990s, when its uses were limited to food technology. It is now selling for as much as Sh4,750 per kilo in the international market.
This is stimulating new beekeeping enterprises across the country.
In Mwingi, 20 beekeepers have come together to supply propolis to a Canadian cosmetic firm which has been scouting for suppliers in Kenya.
Due to “the high quality of honey and bee products we have had from Kenya, we felt that propolis must be of high quality,” said Lindsay Bitt, the marketing manager at Hererra Cosmetics Inc in Canada.
The 20 beekeepers, who hastily registered their group to be able to export, have since been approached by other international companies and now manage to export about 50 kilogrammes of propolis every week.
“But even this does not come close to the huge demand these companies have for this commodity.
We are trying to mobilise every household now to have at least three bee hives to at least make sure that by coming together, we can manage to reach the export target of 1,000 kgs that the exporters are demanding,” said Lameck Mutua, the leader of the bee keeping initiative in Mwingi.
Another youth group in Molo has just completed talks with a US pharmaceutical company Almaco Pharmaceutical Ltd to supply them with “as much propolis as the group can possibly manage to export”, as the pharmaceutical company’s appetite for the product increases after opening more branches in Asia and Africa.
“The idea is to have these raw products exported to us from the nearest source. Already we are thinking of opening a branch in Tanzania, since they are one of the largest exporters of honey and other bee products in the region, but even their supply cannot sustain us, which is why we are looking to other producers like Kenya,” said Matthew Keane of Almaco Pharmaceutical.
The idea for the Molo group came from an exchange programme with a young farmers group in Tanzania, who were harvesting the honey and all other hive products.
“That’s where we realised how we have been going wrong. Once we harvested the honey we used to discard everything else.
We were shocked to learn that everything else that we discarded, which included wax and propolis combined, brought in more money to these group than the honey itself,” said Victor Kiige one of the group members who added that buyers of propolis now come hunting for them.
“Look for any company selling honey and explain to them you have propolis and they will come right away, that is how strong the demand for the product is. We have had about 10 of the companies chase us to supply them with the product,” he added.
Propolis contains compounds known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity as well as tissue strengthening and regenerative effects.
A 2000 Polish study found that mice given propolis lived longer than the mice in the control group.
Antioxidants in propolis are thought to have anti-aging properties in humans as well.
In many countries where antibiotics are not widely available, propolis is used to heal a wide variety of wounds.
Used as an antiseptic wash or salve, it is able to prevent the growth of bacteria in cuts and burns and promote the healing process in lesions of the skin that have not healed.
Used as a mouthwash, it is able to prevent bad breath, gingivitis, tooth decay and gum disease and it is commonly taken as a remedy for sore throats.