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Will beekeeping save Malawi's forests?

November 15, 2023
tags:#deforestation, #bees, #Malawi, #food security, #poverty
by:Leonard Masauli
"If apiculture could reach more areas across Malawi, forests could be saved."

Every year, Malawi loses 33,000 hectares of forest cover due to activities such as charcoal burning, shifting cultivation and firewood extraction. Since 1980, the country has lost over 7.8 million hectares of land to degradation out of a total land area of 8.1 million.

The loss of forested areas has led to an eradication of local biodiversity in Malawi, as well as a range of climate change repercussions, including droughts, soil erosion and flooding, as vast areas of forests and mountains are left devoid of any trees. 

In March this year, Malawians witnessed landslides from its bare mountains during Cyclone Freddy, which led to the burying of an entire village in Chiladzulu district, killing 16 and displacing over 7,000 people. 

In 2017, the government of Malawi deployed soldiers from the country's defence force to safeguard forests and deter activities such as charcoal burning and encroachment. Due to widespread poverty, individuals in communities residing within forests often rely on charcoal burning or selling firewood as a primary source of income for their households.

The majority of charcoal burners are local residents living in proximity to protected forest reserves, while others travel from different locations specifically to engage in the charcoal business.

In January 2023, the government passed the Forestry Act Amendment 2019 to curtail the felling of trees for charcoal burning. Among others provisions, the law imposes fines of roughly USD 10,000 on people caught burning charcoal without permits.

But despite these measures, Malawi's protected forest reserves still face violations, resulting in some areas being completely devoid of trees and featuring only minimal undergrowth. The consequences of environmental depletion have plunged local communities into extreme poverty and food insecurity.

Levereging apiculture to combat deforestation

In response to escalating deforestation caused by activities such as charcoal and mud brick burning, as well as shifting cultivation for millet farming and tobacco production, certain communities have proactively embraced apiculture. This practice involves farmers breeding and rearing bees in hives for the purpose of harvesting honey, aiming to sustainably preserve the forests.

Beyond honey production, bees play a crucial role in the ecosystem by actively participating in the pollination of tree flowers, contributing to a balanced and thriving environment.

A decline in bee species could consequently jeopardise the survival of plant species that rely on bees for pollination. Likewise, the depletion of trees in the forests would pose a significant risk to bee populations.

Elias Banda, chairperson and founder of KabunduliHoney Cooperative Limited, told FairPlanet that he introduced beekeeping in his community as a means of empowering the people and enhancing their economic well-being. The goal was to alleviate the pressure of depending on forestry products like charcoal and timber, which were contributing to accelerated deforestation.

His cooperative currently manages 200 beehives in a forest spanning over ten hectares in the Kadunduli Forest Reserve, in addition to individual members who own a minimum of 20 beehives, each located in more than four hectares of forest.

"Throughout our experience in beekeeping as a cooperative, we have witnessed that beekeeping has potential to protect forests because in areas where we are practicing this kind of farming trees are intact [...] because the communities fear the bee sting," said Banda. 

Another cooperative operating in Mzimba district, in the northern region of Malawi, named Mphalayi Producers and Marketing Cooperative Society Limited, has taken the initiative to safeguard the Bunganya Forest Reserve using beekeeping as a deterrent against encroachers engaging in charcoal burning.

Powell Nkhata, the cooperative's director, told FairPlanet that the initiative has helped local communities protect the reserve from exploitation.

Currently, he said, the cooperative maintains 46 beehives in the forest, and ultimately aims to cover its entire 15 square.

"This is a workable model because since we hung our beehives, people are now afraid to come forward to cut down trees in the reserves," said Nkhata. "We would like to help the government of Malawi to protect the forest reserves in the country. 

A similar beekeeping project model in 2021 was successfully implemented by Resilient Food Systems in the northern district of Karonga, bordering Tanzania. Supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the project aimed to offer alternative sources of income for people in rural communities, reducing their reliance on charcoal burning.

Economic benefits

Nkhata from Mphalayi Producers and Marketing Cooperative Society Limited pointed out that deforestation is driven by high levels of poverty within communities. Due to the lack of income sources to sustain their households, he shared, people in these communities often resort to charcoal burning as a means of making a living.

He stated that through the initiative, over 200 members in the cooperative have gained empowerment and are now able to make a living from the sales of honey.

"This gives the communities an alternative other than to go and cut down trees for charcoal," he said. "Each member in the cooperative owns no less than 40 beehives, and once they harvest and sell [it, they bring in at least] USD 70-100 a month."

He added that, overtime, they observed a shift in the mindset of local residents, who increasingly became devoted stewards of the forest. 

"We wish the government should do more to promote this farming," he added. "If apiculture could reach more areas across Malawi, forests could be saved."

Echoing Nkhata, Banda from the Kabunduli cooperative stated that their cooperative receives over 150 tonnes of honey per harvest, making them Malawi's largest local honey producer with monthly sales of at least USD 1,000.

Banda said that more than 300 farmers benefited from the initiative. He further added that nations like Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa have rolled out successful apiculture programmes and urged the authorities in Malawi to follow suit and boost its support for this type of farming. 

Speaking to FairPlanet, Mathews Dunga, the managing director at Honey Products Limited, argued that apiculture has the potential to reduce significant pressure on the country’s forests. He said that his organisation has worked to create opportunities to conserve forests through commercial beekeeping.

"We want to improve honey production by ensuring the beekeepers have access to beekeeping inputs," he said. "This is why our organisation supplies productive beehives - to ensure that people harvest high volumes of quality honey."

Additional studies on beekeeping

Several case studies conducted by organisations such as Ripple Africa, Mayamiko, the National Local Government Finance Committe, and a specific case study of Neno district in Southern Malawi emphasise the significance of beekeeping. These studies highlight the potential of beekeeping not only to conserve forests but also to economically empower communities in Malawi.

Dunga mentioned that through his organisation, he has successfully assisted clubs in Lilongwe District with 40 beehives, aiming to support the community and encourage forest protection through beekeeping.

Meanwhile, Dominic Tembo Chanyenga, a lead private sector specialist at Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests in Malawi (MCHF), told FairPlanet that MCHF's support for forestry-friendly enterprises in Malawi spans seven different value chains. One of these chains focuses on the honey value chain, encompassing beehives and beekeeping equipment.

The initiative, he added, has so far proven to be highly effective in curbing environmentally-destructive human activities, notably charcoal burning.

"We have directly impacted the lives of over 1,000 households living in proximity to seven forest reserves including the Perekezi forest reserve, Bunganya, Nkhatabay and Dzalanyama, just to mention a few, in the central and northern landscapes of Malawi," he said.

What's standing in beekeepers' way?  

Mathews Malata, an environmentalist and president of the Association of Environmental Journalists in Malawi, expressed that while beekeeping is a commendable initiative for conserving forest reserves, its sustainability may face challenges due to the issue of bushfires.

In Malawi, particularly during the dry season and especially in the months of May and October, a significant number of forests are often subjected to fires. This is mostly caused by individuals, particularly smokers and charcoal producers, who may lose control of the fire, leading to the burning of the forest reserves.

This malpractice has for a long time damaged trees across the nation's forest reserves as well as the ecosystems in those areas. This, Malata observed, would pose a great risk to beekeepers, as beehives are likely to be burnt down by the uncontrollable fires. 

Nonetheless, he said that there is a need to "encourage people in the local communities and improve governance systems in their localities to ensure the initiative is protected."

William Mitembe, the Chief Forestry Officer in the department of Forestry for the Malawi government, told FairPlanet that the department associates beekeeping with forest conservation. According to him, they actively promote beekeeping by urging organisations engaged in forestry restoration and conservation to incorporate it as a livelihood activity within the category of forest-based enterprises.

He cautioned, however, that charcoal burning and firewood extraction continue to pose a threat to Malawi's beekeeping industry, noting that the number of people practicing apiculture is lower than those engaging in illicit activities in protected areas.

Image by Mathews Dunga

Article written by:
Leonard Masauli
Community members monitoring their beehives.
© Mathews Dunga, Honey Products Limited
Community members monitoring their beehives.
Community members preparing to install beehives in their locality.
© Mathews Dunga, Honey Products Limited
Community members preparing to install beehives in their locality.
Members of the Tikondane Honey club hanging their beehive.
© Mathews Dunga, Honey Products Limited
Members of the Tikondane Honey club hanging their beehive.