After graduating with a degree in environmental biology in 2015, Benjamin Lemoi had two options: to join the formal employment run like his peers and others before him, or to return to his pastoralist Maasai community and try to raise herds of cows, sheep and goats.
He chose a third option, which he had held close to his chest as a trump card informed by proper field research.
Moving back to his home in Loita, a district in Narok South Sub-county, he recruited eight members to set up the Maasai Bee-keeping Initiative (MBI), an enterprise that started with 10 Langstroth beehives purchased at Sh15,000 each.
For a strong take off, Lemoi visited other beekeeping areas in the country and studied all the best practices, which he instituted in his project.
“I went to Kitui, where I stayed for two months before travelling to Baringo, where I stayed for a similar period of time, learning the practical aspects of production, which I later implemented in our project, ” Lemoi said.
The business was an instant success and within one year the group had recouped their investment and were expanding to set up more hives in Loita Forest, Maji Moto, Nyakweri and Esupetai, all locales under Narok County.
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Yet while it would have been easier for Lemoi and the first members of his beekeeping network to keep growing the project on their own, they opted to turn it into a social enterprise which has in five years recruited more than 300 members and administers over 1000 beehives. About one quarter of the members are women, mostly widows.
“For me, it was not just about growing as a businessman, but to also provide empowerment opportunities for my community. This was a bigger mission, whose ultimate goal could only be achieved by uplifting the people amongst whom I grew,” Lemoi said.
Lemoi now manufactures langstroth beehives at a workshop in Loita, a local production that has reduced the cost of one beehive by 60 percent to KSh5,500. He also sells metallic stands with locking features at KSh1800 a piece.
Members who join his initiative, now a registered cooperative society, are taken through comprehensive beekeeping training and get ready access to markets for their produce.
The society buys a kilogram of honey at KSh400 from the members and sells at KSh800. Wholesale buyers, some who purchase the honey to sell in the middle east get it for a bulk price of KSh500 per kilogram. On average, the society sells honey and related products worth more than Sh10million per year.
“This project started as a proof-of-concept but it has grown to be a profitable business benefiting whole communities. We are really proud of the success gained so far,” Lemoi said.
By having more members delivering honey and wax to the society, Lemoi is able to guarantee a constant supply of the products.
“There is no time that you will come to us and fail to get honey. Ours is a year-round supply of high quality honey, produced using indigenous trees, which give a special flavour that cannot be replicated elsewhere,” he said.
Bee-keeping in Kenya is an agricultural field that is yet to be well exploited with the industry bearing an estimated yield of 100,000 metric tonnes per year. However, just 20 percent of the country’s honey production potential has been tapped.
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“The beauty about bee keeping is that it can be practised alongside other agricultural activities as the hives do not generally occupy substantial ground space. In addition, the hives can be set up even on land that is not arable, therefore making productive use of resources that were previously disregarded,” Lemoi said.
At present, 80 percent of the country’s honey is produced using traditional log hives, which yield almost half the honey produced by bees in modern langstroth hives.
“With proper training, farmers can take up improved production methods, which yield more honey, and, certainly, more income for them,” said Lemoi.
With his success in Narok, Lemoi and his MBI society are looking to expand into other regions of the country, setting up new apiaries, while training existing farmers to increase their output.