For years, Joseck Matheri, Calvin Tiony and their wives watched helplessly as honey badger, an animal bigger than a cat but smaller than a dog, held their venture hostage.
Whenever they put up beehives, it would destroy them in pursuit of its favourite meal: honey. It was heartbreaking and they contemplated giving up on the venture despite the promise of good returns.
The question at the back of their minds was, “how do we handle the honey badger.”
“Beekeepers will tell tales of how they’ve lost huge investments to this small but very courageous animal,” Joseck says. “I know of a farmer who lost 17 hives in a single night, that’s less than twelve hours.”
But it’s not only the honey badger that the beekeepers had to contend with. Honey production is also curtailed by the weather – whether it's too hot or too cold – theft of beehives and wax moths that eat combs, particularly those that contain brood and pollen.
“The only known treatment for wax moth is fire treatment. With most of the hives made of wood, it becomes a case of throwing out the baby and the bathwater. Such losses discourage many from venturing into this highly lucrative industry,” he says.
And in 2020 after investing many hours and millions of shillings, the families came up with a solution: concrete beehives under their company, Mister Bee Concrete Hives. A first of its kind in the country, this honey-holding container is a gamechanger.
“We chose to work with concrete because it was a material too strong enough for the honey badger but also because of its thermodynamic characteristics,” says Calvin, an engineer and the technical head at the company. To appreciate the ingenuity of this hive, one must first understand bees and wooden hives.
In a wooden hive, honey output during the hot season is low as bees spend a majority of their time flapping their wings to cool the internal temperature. When it’s cold, they clamp together to keep warm. But concrete as a non-heat conductor doesn’t allow heat inside or outside.
“These saved hours increase honey production by 40 percent because bees continue working at full capacity despite the weather conditions,” adds Calvin.
Furthermore, the concrete hive is not destroyed during fire treatment and is burglar-proof thanks to its 100-kilogramme weight. This means it can set it up anywhere. Its durability also saves on cost. Wooden beehives have to be replaced every four years but the concrete hive can last up to 100 years.
The hive consists of two layers of the brood box that houses the queen and where the eggs, larvae and pupa develop, a honey super with 10 wooden frames for honey collection, an airtight cover and a lock notch feature that allows it to be secured using a padlock that can’t be opened by honey badgers nor honey burglars.
The hive is set up 500 cm from the ground on reinforced poles fitted with “Kaluki guards”, plates innovated by Janet, Joseck’s wife, to protect it from all kinds of ants.
“A honey harvest from each hive weights between 9-10 kilogrammes or 13 kilogrammes, wax included. It takes 3-6 months to have your first harvest, depending on rain patterns and vegetation,” notes Janet.
The pioneering hive, whose design has already been patented, has not gone unnoticed. Recently, it was recognised by the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre and the Kenya Catalytic Job Fund by UK aid for its level of innovation, and its social, economic and environmental impact.
“It takes one tree to make six wooden hives. Kenya makes 60,000 hives annually. That’s 10,000 trees lost. A concrete hive drastically reduces deforestation thus preventing further release of carbon in the environment,” Joseck, the firm's commercial lead explains.
The innovations have also won them partners as far as Australia, the world’s honey capital.
So far, they’ve installed hives in 17 different locations across the country. Each hive costs Sh15,000. One doesn’t need a huge piece of land. Just one in a rich environment since bees are hardworking, traveling up to seven kilometres to collect pollen and nectar. On an eighth of an acre, one can comfortably install 50 hives.
“Beekeeping is a great way to make use of idle land. It’s also very profitable. It takes 12 years to get a return on real estate but only three years with beekeeping,” Mr Joseck says.
Near their home in Syokimau, the Matheris have set up a bee farm and also one at their farm in Kwale.
Mister Bee Concrete Hives has come up with a model that allows anyone to become a beekeeper by removing the “you-must-be-a-professional” barrier.
With a purchase of at least 25 hives, the duo with their team of eight employees, install the hives, provide beekeeping equipment, conduct training and inspection at least once a month. They’ll harvest the honey once it's ready and buy all of it, paying within 30-days from the day of harvesting.
“This model requires a heavy budget. Buying 25 hives at a go may lock out many. Therefore, we’re open to working with county governments, Saccos, NGOs and microfinance institutions to supply these hives,” Janet, head of marketing says.
But not all parts of the venture are sweet. “As the pioneers, the process was costly and tedious. This also hampers buy-in because no-one has done it before. Therefore, we spend a lot of time and resources creating awareness about the hive,” Calvin explains.
Despite the seemingly heavy budget, the couples say the opportunity is greater than the initial financial challenge given the market dynamics both locally and internationally.
The market for genuine honey is large. The demand for honey is 125 million kilogrammes a year in Kenya alone while supply is 25 million kilogrammes. To bridge this gap, Kenyans resorts to importing or settle for adulterated honey.
“They may be tiny but bees are the lifeline of planet Earth,” Janet concludes.