Bees for Development Ethiopia celebrates 10 years: an interview with Director and Founder, Tilahun Gebey

Written by Janet Lowore

July 26, 2022

Q: What motivated you to establish BfD Ethiopia? 

It was because of the encouragement I received from the team at Bees for Development UK that I felt bold enough to take the big step of leaving my existing job and setting up a new organization dedicated to beekeeping development. One of the strong motivating factors was my concern about the welfare of bees. Nowadays, where crops are irrigated, bees are negatively affected, and honey production is falling – because of the high use of pesticides.  

Q: One of your stated aims is to promote ‘beekeeper-friendly beekeeping’ – what do you mean by this term? Why ‘beekeeper-friendly’?  

We are not promoting frame hives, which are often called ‘modern’ hives. These are the yellow hives donated in their thousands by other projects in Ethiopia. They look attractive at first, but the benefits of these yellow hives do not justify the high costs, their maintenance demands and their need for associated equipment. We promote beekeeping systems which do not harm beekeepers’ pockets and where beekeepers can harvest whole honey comb which is demanded by the market. Frame hives work best when honey is extracted using a centrifuge and drawn comb can be re-used. This approach is not easy for rural beekeepers to follow as they don’t have honey extractors and have nowhere to store drawn comb from one season to the next and the benefit is quickly lost.

The type of beekeeping systems we promote is based on indigenous knowledge and skill. We provide training based on the seasonality of the beekeeping calendar. For example, during the dearth period beekeepers are trained how to make hives and top-bars from locally available materials and they learn about the importance of beekeeping. During the active season participants are trained on bee colony management and how to harvest honey, whilst maintaining quality.

Q: What has been your greatest achievement since establishing BfD Ethiopia? What are you most proud of?

We started out with a one-man (myself) office in 2012. Now after 10 years we have reached 10 staff members! But seriously more important than that we have managed to influence the government extension systems. Formerly the government was promoting the ubiquitous yellow frame hives only, but now they pay attention to top-bar hives and recognize that it’s the impact of beekeeping for people’s lives, which is more important than the type of hive.  

I am also proud when I visit the honey market in Bahir Dar. It is now known by the honey traders in the market that the best quality honey is brought by beekeepers trained by BfDE staff.   

We have achieved so much since 2013 and have made a difference to the lives of nearly 4000 households – including landless youth, women and the poorest groups. We have worked with people who had never kept bees before, and those who had – always providing practical training, advice and follow-up so people can get the best from beekeeping. We have worked on the restoration of degraded land by re-greening and re-wilding badly eroded hillsides, by halting erosion, planting trees and protecting natural regeneration. These recovering lands are now providing pollen and nectar for honey bees and income for beekeepers. This is a big achievement! 

Q: I am sure you have faced challenges along the way. What have been these challenges and how have you overcome them? 

Approving the first project proposal was a big challenge because at that time the government rules about how NGO’s could apportion their budget were very strict and it was hard to allocate sufficient budget lines for staff salaries. Also, this first project was approved to start in June – which was late in relation to the beekeeping season. To avoid missing a whole beekeeping season we had to start work immediately and convince the beneficiaries to participate in the project during their farming season. However, I managed to get help from colleagues – Solomon Orion and Seid Ali – from the Livestock Agency and we were successful.  

I remember one night back in August 2013, I was driving home at 9:30 pm after beekeeping training in Robite – I was 11 km from Bahir Dar and there was big thunderstorm with high wind, and floods on the highway. At that time I was using my own small car for transport and I was very scared of being washed away. After that I dreamed about getting a 4WD vehicle for my organization and finally we managed to secure a strong 4WD in 2018 from the Federal Civil Society Agency free of charge. That was an important milestone! 

Q: What are the most pressing issues facing beekeepers in Ethiopia at present? 

Today the beekeeping industry in Ethiopia is challenged by unsystematic applications of agrochemicals. It is painful to see the most powerful, important and unique creatures – the honey bees – dying due to our ignorance. Deforestation is also a challenge as this deprives bees of habitat and forage and undermines the success of beekeeping. Finally, it is disappointing to see that the government extension service does not always pay enough attention to beekeeping.

Q: What do you want to achieve within the next 10 years? 

Last year we developed our 10-year Strategic Plan for Bees for Development Ethiopia and we want to realise that – the plan includes three main Strategic Objectives – Income for the poor, Improved forest cover and Stronger institutional capacity for the sector in Ethiopia. I am determined to achieve these goals.  

I also want to open one liaison office in Addis Ababa and three more branch offices in different part of the country. This will increase our reach and capacity.  

 

Q: Now tell me a bit about your own beekeeping – do you have bee colonies yourself? What is the best thing about beekeeping in your opinion? 

 

I got my first bee colonies in 2003 from a high school teacher. He came to me and said he had 28 bee colonies which he needed to sell. I visited him and was surprised to find a good apiary on a small plot of land. I asked him why he wanted to sell his bees and he explained he was getting divorced. I tried to persuade him otherwise, but I failed to convince him. Then I decided to buy all 28 colonies for a total of 4,000birr – whereas now one bee colony in Bahir Dar sells for between 1,500 – 2,000birr. Such has our currency devalued and inflation has hit! Over the years I have faced challenges because I don’t own my own land. I have kept bees at my house on the roof. Indeed, I had one excellent colony from which I harvested 20kg of honey every year. In the end I had to get rid of it because the colony became very defensive. Now I have an out-apiary at JeCCDO – a local NGO with a lot of land.

I remain passionate about bees and beekeeping and am determined to see these wonderful insects protected, supported and making a difference to people’s lives.

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