Eleven villagers sit under the shade of a marula tree, in the heat of midday, deep in the KwaZulu-Natal bush in a village called Gazini. They have been up since 4AM to tell their stories in search of a small solution to a large problem.
A week before, a herd of elephants trampled through the vegetable patch. Villagers woke to see an elephant in their backyard peering through their door. The backlash has been violent and bloody – earlier this year, villagers killed an elephant and stripped it to the bone.
Gazini is a scatter of farms two kilometers from the South African border with Mozambique; electricity or cell phone reception is unheard of. The villagers here live hand-to-mouth deep in the bush.
The villagers complain the elephants emerge from the bush in the dead of night, to strike terror into their homes. The reason the elephants roam is because their home in the bush is getting smaller by the year.
Listening patiently to the villagers are two entrepreneurs, Mmabatho and Desmond Morudi, in white overalls, who believe their business can help the villagers sleep easy.
“The thing that made [the threat] clear to me was when we did a trip along the border fence. There you can see exactly where the fence has been broken and where the elephants cross over. We could see the broken poles snapped in half like twigs,” says Desmond.
The entrepreneurs believe that building 200 beehives, in a two-kilometer barrier will not only fend off the elephants but also make money. The villagers could be forgiven for being sceptical.
“I don’t think they are convinced, it’s still a test to see if it
really, really works to deter the elephants,” says Mmabatho.
“It’s [understandable] why they would believe such a large creature wouldn’t be scared of something so small,” says Desmond.
The Morudis have been working around this village since October. They start work early; the bees get aggressive as the day wears on. The hives hang on wooden poles, 10 meters apart, linked by barbed wire. If touched by an elephant, the hives swing and stir up the bees.
“So far we’ve put up a fence with 40 hives. Two hundred will be the final amount. The challenge is 200 hives is quite a stretch, it means they have to run through other villages of people who don’t even know that the project is going on. There is also the issue of leaving space for cars driving past as well as border patrols. You don’t want to cut the elephants off totally. You just want to cordon off the sensitive areas and leave behind a path.”
The buzzing beehive fence is the brainchild of Lucy King in Kenya, Head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program for Save the Elephants, where she realized that elephants are scared of African honey bees and will avoid beehives at all costs. The bees sting the elephants’ soft skin, eyes, face, trunk and mouth.
The fences have an 80% success rate. They are made from local materials and are cheap, costing $150 to $500 per 100 meters, says King from her headquarters Nairobi.
The beehive fences have been so successful with human-elephant conflict (HEC), 13 countries have adopted similar projects, one of them being the Morudi’s growing business, The Village Market.
“We’ve obsessed over [King’s] manual and her work in Kenya… At the same time we were trying to find villages that we could work with. We had the skills, we had the knowledge, we needed the natural vegetation,” says Mmabatho.
In the shade of the marula tree, they have taken King’s research one step further. They want to use beehive fences as part of a R2.5-million ($180,000) dream to harvest, bottle and deliver wild, high-quality honey to suburban shopping aisles.
“In general our jars sell for R55 per 375g. Then we have Mmabatho’s baby, the raw high quality, for R75 per 375g. We aim to develop a luxury brand, bringing more orders to a premium market. We work on 35kgs per hive per harvest, which is once every three months,” says Desmond.
This means, by January, 11 bee keepers of Gazini could have yielded R49,000 ($3,500).
It’s been a long journey to this odd business for Desmond and Mmabatho. They come from modest homes in Kimberly and Pretoria.
“Our desire was to develop communities we grew up in, providing help for people and business opportunities.”
The idea was born in the home of Mmabatho’s grandfather in Winterveld, a rural town 68 kilometers northwest of Pretoria, in 2012.
“Bees would get into our ceiling and produce so much honey that the ceiling would cave in. Like every other family, we would try and smoke them out and kill them. But they would always come back,” says Mmabatho.
Instead her grandfather took the family on a beekeeping course and Mmabatho was hooked. She started her own company called Iliju Bee Farm.
Her work with Iliju Bee Farm led to Mmabatho shaking hands with ministers and members of the top 100 entrepreneurs of Europe. She also dined with Richard Branson. In 2013, Mmabatho was selected as one of the brightest young minds in South Africa, and again as one of the emerging changemakers by Spark International.
Things got even busier and Mmabatho’s husband, Desmond, left the comfort of corporate accounting to help manage the business. But success proved to be a devil in disguise. The business grew too quickly and couldn’t cope. They took on a bee expert who left a year and a half later and Iliju collapsed.
Then they started The Village Market at the end of 2014.
“As we learned more about bees, and their plight, that’s when it all came together. Lucy King’s study came after we had established Winterveld. Nora Taiga, of the Peace Foundation, now Elephant, Rhinos & People (ERP), paid Mmabatho a subsistence salary of R10,000, then introduced us to the people of Gazini,” says Desmond.
“At the beginning of the year the crossings were getting quite significant. Previously it had just been bulls, but then we started seeing breeding herds coming through,” says Nonceba Lushaba, KZN Coordinator of ERP.
“From the elephant’s point of view they have realized that there are easy pickings here. It’s kind of like a naughty child who goes to pick sweets.”
In Gazini, finding the bees is half the battle. Once the hives are built, the beekeepers take the hives to their homes in Gazini and attempt to colonize them.
Bees are fussy dwellers; they need water, plenty of flowering plants, protective vegetation and far from direct sunlight. Once the bees have moved in, the keepers close the entrances at night and then transport the colony to the beehive fence. Work starts before dawn. In their bee suits they walk with the hives on their heads to this farm. It is so remote you need a 4×4 to navigate a maze of bush trails to find it.
“Another important issue is researching bee diseases. Bee health is important if we want to conserve them. Research needs to keep track of these growing issues.”
Threats, like the varroa mite that attacks bees in the hive and contributes in part to colony collapse, are global concerns. This is why the couple have teamed up with the University of Pretoria (Tuks) Zoology and Entomology department’s Bee Group that will add valuable research to elephant behavior, bee repopulation and disease control.
Even though US and Europe honey bee colonies were under threat from Colony Collapse Disorder for almost ten years, the African honey bee was safe from the impact of industrialized apiculture. This according to research by Robin Crew, professor of Entomology and leader of the Social Insects Research Group in the University of Pretoria’s Department of Zoology and Entomology.
In Crew’s book “A World Without Bees”, the fact that Africa has the largest number of wild honey bee swarms in the world has contributed to wider genetic diversity and therefore populations are not as severely affected by diseases.
The beepocolypse, as it was called, could even be resolved with recolonization with the African honey bee because of its resilience.
Their Gazini project has even caught the eye of the African Union which granted $15,000 to the bee research at Tuks.
“It’s not just the sake of doing research for the sake of research, but using it to solve community problems. To help developed communities,” says Desmond.
On the morning of inspection, Mmabatho finds suspicious larvae in one of the hives. It turns out to be waxworm. These pests eat cocoons, pollen, the shed skins of bees, and chew through beeswax.
“We need the bees to focus all their energy on making the honey. As soon as invaders enter the hive they expend all their energy getting it out, which of course affects production,” says Desmond.
The couple believe that deforestation, pesticides and insecticides also affect the bees. They instead plant strong smelling plants and herbs, like spring onions, to discourage pests and also plant flowering vegetables like tomatoes to encourage pollination.
“We are trying to encourage our farmers to use organic methods so they don’t affect the bee populations. That is why, in addition to this, we sell veggies to markets,” says Mmabatho.
Once the honey is ready it its transported 600 kilometers to their bottling plant at the Riversands Incubation Hub that opened in September in Fourways, north of Johannesburg.
“The problem we have with honey in South Africa is a lot of it is imported. Because of important laws we need to irradiate it. You will see in the shops it will say it’s ionized by radiation in order to increase shelf life. The impact of that is that it takes away the good qualities from the honey.”
“There is also a lack of variation of honey in the market. We introduce some product differentiation; infusing honey with lemon or cinnamon.”
Raw honey is murky and beige in color, a completely different experience from what you see in the shops.
“People are used to seeing this brown liquid here on the shelves that’s what they associate with honey. They don’t appreciate the real raw product will crystallize,” says Mmabatho.
Honey also can be used in health and beauty products and is a natural anti-inflammatory. Scrubs, moisturizers and masks can all be made from the by-product of the comb.
This is one business that is helping a tiny village sleep at night and got a couple of bright African entrepreneurs buzzing.