After working in the beekeeping industry for 15 years as an auditor and later in finance and administration, Pauline Otila was privileged to visit Israel to learn more about the sector.
The visit inspired her to venture beyond her routine administrative duties, a shift that opened her world to the challenges of entrepreneurship and the rewards that come with it.
“While in Israel, I interacted with different women in beekeeping and thought of replicating the same back home. I wanted to offer beekeepers a ready market,” Ms Otila, the founder and managing director of Apiculture Venture Limited, told the Business Daily.
She saw her company as a one-stop solution offering services across the honey value chain.
The Bachelor of Commerce graduate says before quitting her job to start the business, she had written two resignation letters but would hold onto them due to the fear of the unknown.
“I was being paid well, so quitting and not being sure whether I would be able to make ends meet was not easy. I spoke to other business people on how they navigated after leaving their well-paying jobs,” Ms Otila recalls.
Her first full year in business in 2019 was difficult in terms of finances and managing the new business. In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, she toyed with the idea of going back to employment.
She joined women’s business networks, spoke to friends and had to change her lifestyle.
“I scaled down my lifestyle, got a smaller vehicle, joined master classes and accelerator programmes to make me more resilient in business and these kept me going and got to understand my business better,” says Ms Otila.
The entrepreneur says she was well-prepared to raise capital before starting Apiculture Venture Limited.
In 2013, she had a budget, opened a fixed savings account in one of the banks and also saved with her Sacco. By the time she was leaving employment, she had Sh4 million.
“Shock on me, by 2018 when I was starting, commodity prices, office space costs, and equipment prices had all gone up and the savings was only enough to sustain the business for only four months. So I had to plough back the little profit I made into the business.”
Despite the difficult first year in business, she developed her footprints in six counties and onboarded 2,500 beekeepers and earned Sh21 million in revenue.
“At the peak of Covid-19, there was high demand for honey and we recruited over 2,600 new beekeepers though revenue growth was not big because bees take time to produce honey. Revenue grew by 10 percent,” she explains.
She says 2021 was their peak growth period as the firm recruited 8,000 new beekeepers, and sold 6,000 bee hives from 3,000 previously with revenue doubling.
“In 2022, we signed partnerships with other organisations, had 10,700 new beekeepers and revenue grew by 20 percent and received a $50,000 grant,” says Ms Otila.
To date, she says, the company averages seven tonnes of honey sales annually, sold about 20,000 bee hives and onboarded 24,900 beekeepers in more than 20 counties.
She plans to be in all 47 counties and become the largest commercial honey producer in Kenya and East Africa as well as sustainably create more jobs for women and youth through beekeeping.
Honey is one of the most adulterated food products worldwide, and Kenya is no exception. So, how does she cope with fierce competition from genuine and rivals selling adulterated honey?
“We only collect honey from our farmers who are trained in honey handling and have also set up a laboratory for testing before taking products to the market, not to mention continuous branding and rebranding and having feature marks to safeguard our brand,” says Ms Otila.
She says her business model in the honey value chain is three-pronged — one being farmer partnerships with individuals, groups or conservancy or community where they will have a certain number of bee hives and Apiculture Venture matches that number and train them in apiary.
“The other model is to hire land with the landowner only in charge of security while Apiculture Venture Limited manages it. The last model is where groups buy hives from us, we train them, let them manage the hives and we provide a ready market,” says Ms Otila.
The entrepreneur says one of the hurdles that stand out is finance.
“There are no tax holidays and incentives in Kenya when you start a business and I wish a financial institution will come up with a package to fund startups as this will enable businesses to grow,” she says.
The businesswoman adds that when she began, she had to remove that ‘cap’ of being a woman and wear an entrepreneurial ‘cap’ to centre this male-dominated field.
“The lack of people with beekeeping skills is a big impediment too as there are no colleges offering training in apiary. I had to get people with a food science background and train them,” she says.
Ms Otila adds even after the training, which was costly, competitors poached some of them.
She says overregulation and taxation are an obstacle too.
“Regulations are there to help the industry grow and the beekeeping industry is not an exception but we feel the industry is overregulated. Taxation is quite heavy — equipment subjected to value-added tax,” she says.
Ms Otila says in her career and entrepreneurial journey, she has learnt not to focus on beekeeping only but also on other industries because they are interlinked.
When she was starting, she also wanted to do so many things within a short time.
“I wanted to be everywhere — this exhibition, see what IT guys were doing, be in charge of honey processing so at times I got overwhelmed and that took a toll on me,” says Ms Otila.
“You cannot be superhuman. I learnt to expand my team and delegate duty.”
After losing two of her well-trained staff to a competitor, she rectified the mistakes that might have made her staff leave.
“Don’t take shortcuts, do not procrastinate and whatever you choose to do, do it well,” says Ms Otila.
“As a business person, you must have some knowledge in management, finance, and marketing so learn to continuously grow yourself because if you don’t then who will learn for your business?”