Beekeeping as a mitigatory measure to El Niño threats

In West Africa, the low rainfall has affected the cocoa farmers and the effects reverberate throughout the value chain. This serves a huge blow to the cocoa farmers of the world’s two largest producers, Ivory Coast and Ghana, who earn about 70%-100% of their farm income from the cocoa enterprise.

WE are currently experiencing one of the strongest El Niños on record, which is expected to last until April this year.

This super El Niño has had adverse impacts on the Sub-Saharan region, particularly handicapping the agricultural sector.

In West Africa, the low rainfall has affected the cocoa farmers and the effects reverberate throughout the value chain. This serves a huge blow to the cocoa farmers of the world’s two largest producers, Ivory Coast and Ghana, who earn about 70%-100% of their farm income from the cocoa enterprise.

In East Africa, the El Niño effects manifested in the form of floods in November 2023 where 3,1 million people were affected. This culminated in the displacement of 772 000 people in Somalia, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Moreover, this is expected to cause a dramatic rise of plant and livestock pests and diseases. Down south the El Niño resulted in serious drought and crop failure.

This has affected crop production, especially maize farming in the region thus posing a threat to food security since the crop is a staple in this zone. We have to understand that El Niño Southern Oscillation occurs every two to seven years on average and generally lasting nine to 12 months.

This is a naturally occurring phenomenon occasioned by the warming of the central-eastern Pacific Ocean. Nonetheless human or anthropogenic activities exacerbate the effects of El Niño.

The impacts are more pronounced in the year subsequent to its development, in the present case of 2024. The year 2023 was the hottest on record hence the effects have wreaked havoc, especially in agriculture.

On the backdrop of the facts provided above, we know that the current El Niño is not the last one.

One of the traits that have ensured the continuation of the human race in the face of various calamities throughout the ages is the ability to quickly find solutions to challenges that come along the way, a classic example being the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

In the same vein, the current climate change challenges demand that we learn to adapt, mitigate the effects and continue thriving. In a quest to cushion farmers, particularly the smallholder ones from future El Niño effects, beekeeping can be an avenue of boosting their resilience in the years of drought, such that they can still generate income withstanding crop failure.

Considering that smallholder farms make up about 80% of total farms in Africa, producing up to 70% of food supply, the issue of finding cushioning alternatives to their crop enterprises in the wake of climate change deserves undivided and urgent attention.

Bearing in mind that the El Niño Southern Oscillation associated with drought is occurring more frequently, there is need to put up measures that can be applied quickly, as well as, having speedy response rate to the challenges.

For instance, in the case of cocoa farming in Ivory Coast and Ghana, shifting operations to highlands where precipitation rates are higher, seems a feasible option. However, humungous investments would have to be made.

Such high investment large scale projects, usually, take considerable time to complete. In the meantime, the farmers have families to feed and bills to take care of.

This is where beekeeping comes in. The smallholder farmers in Africa can take up beekeeping as a complementary enterprise to crop farming.

Whilst the El Niño has its negative impacts, the absence of harsh winters presents conditions permissible for beekeeping throughout the year and gives African beekeepers an edge over farmers in the northern hemisphere, whose productivity nosedives during the winter season.

It has to be understood that during droughts the wild plants are more resilient to crop plants hence they serve as sources of pollen and nectar for the bees to produce honey.

Unlike crop farming where the farmer has to purchase inputs, such as fertilisers and pesticides, the same hive can be used in succeeding seasons.

Moreover, beekeeping is an avenue of utilising the marginal lands that are not suitable for crop production.

One cannot stand aloof bemoaning that they cannot find fertile land to set up a beekeeping enterprise.

A bonus for the bee farmers is that honey is one food type that does not expire and can still be edible after thousands of years. So issues of post-harvest losses are minimal.

The Sub-Saharan farmers need to take up this initiative with a commercial approach. Well-organised beekeeping is a fairly new industry in most parts of this region.

More bee-farmers need to step up to the scene and the existing ones need to adapt their beekeeping methods to sustainable honey production.

It is prudent to adopt modern hives, such as the Kenya Top Bar (KTB) as well as better ways of pacifying the bees during harvesting so that most of them do not die during that process.

The KTB produces significantly more honey than the traditional hives, thus generating more revenue.

Europe, the world’s largest market for honey relies on imports to satisfy 40% of its demand. The role of honey producers from developing countries in the European market is increasingly becoming important. For instance in 2022, they contributed 49% of honey imports valued €613 million (US$661,6 million) to the region.

According to recent reports, the volume of honey exports of developing countries to the European market is growing at an average rate of 7,3%.

This presents huge opportunities for the African beekeepers.

Therefore, smallholders, who decide to take up this type of enterprise, are assured of a reliable market.

For the African honey producers, the table honey market is more appealing as compared to the industrial honey market since it offers considerably higher prices and unmatched high volumes required by industrial clients.

It would be an uphill task competing with well-established market players like China in that segment. Therefore, the producers from Africa need to package and label their product well so that it is quite appealing to the table market. When they have gained traction in this market they can venture into interesting segments like the organic honey market.

A case in point where the beekeeping enterprise has contributed to the amelioration of climate change effects is a project in Malawi where the livelihoods of some communities depended on charcoal production hence massive deforestation.

By taking beekeeping to three districts, Kulonga, Phalombe and Machinga,the project embarked on a tree planting spree, providing the (natural) infrastructure on which to hang the hives.

The income they used to make from charcoal has now been replaced by the revenues from honey production.

The household monthly income from honey sales has been steadily increasing from US$4 in 2019 to US$89 in 2021.

The initiative also reversed land degradation prevalence from a range of 40-60% to less than 40% in the course of the project. Having said that, I need to emphasise on the importance of provisions, such as training and initial equipment or material for such projects to be effective.

Governments, as well as, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) need to corroborate so as to assist the smallholder farmers taking up this initiative by funding the initial phases and facilitating skills-transfer.

 The disquisition boils down to the fact that beekeeping provides an alternative mitigatory strategy to maneuver future El Niñoseffects, thus promoting climate resilient agri-food systems and ensuring “weather-proof” revenue for the smallholder farmers.

Related Topics