A drive along the newly tarmacked Kibwezi-Kitui road exposes visitors to a sleepy countryside where mature acacia, baobab trees as well assorted shrubs line the road. It is on that vegetation where beekeeping, a vibrant economy which is taking farmers in Kitui County by storm, is hinged.
Thousands of farmers in the arid region have embraced beekeeping, perpetuating an economic activity that was a mainstay of their forefathers.
They have, however, adopted some modern beekeeping methods, boosting production and making their ventures profitable. As a result, the industry rivals maize as the region's economic mainstay.
"My father had more than 300 beehives. But they were not as productive as my 70 beehives which are always colonised by bees," the Reverend Euticus Kyungu told the Enterprise at Kituti Village.
The cleric at Berea Baptist Church is the poster child of the honey revolution. He is among farmers in the area who are well versed in increasing the production of honey by ensuring that beehives are always colonised.
The training conducted by the National Beekeeping Institute includes lessons on colonising beehives mechanically. The 42-year-old is the chairman of Kamaki Farmers’ Cooperative Society which brings together more than 4,500 beekeepers owing 17,000 beehives scattered across the southern end of the land sandwiched between River Athi and Tsavo East National Park.
The society started small in 2008 as a community-based organisation which promoted assorted agribusiness value chains. Today, it promotes the keeping of bees through modern methods. In addition to training farmers on modern beekeeping methods, the society supplies them with beehives and honey harvesting kits, among them clean buckets. It buys the produce from farmers, packages it in clean branded containers and sells it to retailers.
"After receiving honey from farmers, we test it to ensure that it has the right amount of moisture and sugar, and grade it according to the tree from whose flowers bees harvested the nectar and the region where it has been harvested. We discourage farmers from pounding honey after harvesting so that it retains its high quality. We buy raw honey at Sh230 a kilogramme, process and pack the liquid which we sell at Sh700 a kilogramme,” said Ms Esther Mutunga, a manager at the society.
The society is in the process of experimenting on how to use the comps to make products such as candles, according to Mr Dominic Mulinge, the manager in charge of programmes at the society.
The honey business has already created employment and spawned multiple enterprises. The ventures have enabled farmers to embrace the growth of sunflower, fodder grass and green grams, according to Dr Temi Mutia, the official in charge of promoting value chains at the governor’s (County) office.
The society's biggest headache, according to Ms Mutunga, is its inability to meet the growing demand for authentic honey in the region. "However, we are optimistic that with increasing membership and the adoption of colonising techniques, the society will have enough honey to meet the rapidly increasing demand”.
Honey falls in the same category as millet, sorghum and other indigenous foods among the Kamba community which have been elbowed by modern foods.
But in Kitui, like in most parts in the country, the locals are slowly bucking the trend in consuming honey, according to Mr Mutuku Muindi, an archeologist who has been studying the local culture.
The demand is pushed in part by advocacy by nutritionists on the need for safe sugar which is contained in pure honey. It is used as a spread on bread and a sweetener for tea and porridge. "We are using honey to bake irresistible cakes," said Ms Mutunga.
The biggest customers at Kamaki Farmer’s Cooperative Society are individuals who walk in and out of the society's honey aggregation centre located at Muangeni Township along the new road. The cooperative also sells to corporate clients such as Mulleys Supermarkets which has 10 branches in Machakos and Makueni counties, as well as other smaller honey stockists.
Kitui governor Charity Ngilu is also one of their most loyal clients. She has even taken to marketing the commodity beyond the county.
"The best honey in the world is made in Kitui. We have invested in beekeeping and introduced value addition on bee products to increase earnings for our beekeepers," she said after the county hosted the national celebrations of this year’s edition of the United Nation’s World Bee Day on May 20.