Beekeeping and Local Self-Reliance in Rural Southern Africa

By Illgner, Pete M.; Nel, Etienne L. et al. | The Geographical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Beekeeping and Local Self-Reliance in Rural Southern Africa


Illgner, Pete M., Nel, Etienne L., Robertson, Mark P., The Geographical Review


Beekeeping may be seen as a perfect model of responsible, sustainable agriculture. It can greatly benefit rural communities by providing additional food, medicine and income.

- Elize Lundall-Magnuson, "Developmental Beekeeping," 1997

Economic marginalization, the frequent failure of past development interventions, and the need of local communities in rural Africa to secure economic survival have encouraged a focus on indigenous knowledge and self-reliance strategies (Burkey 1993; Binns 1995). The academic and policy attention increasingly being paid to these considerations represents a fundamental shift in development foci and a concerted response to the perceived negative effects of structural adjustment programs in rural Africa (Taylor and Mackenzie 1992). Where local self-reliance strategies exist and, in certain instances, where they are supported by external agencies, they often "constitute the only means of survival for local communities, providing an invaluable basis for reviving local self-reliance and restructuring regional development on more indigenous and self-reliant lines" (Gooneratne 1992, 3). These issues have particular relevance to indigenous beekeeping in the rural areas of the countries that make up the Southern African Development Community (Louw 1992) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Beekeeping, it can be argued, is an ecologically and technically appropriate form of income generation for communities in some of the most economically and environmentally poor areas of Africa. Its role in promoting economic self-reliance and the need to enhance this role were identified in the important Banjul Bee Declaration of 1991 (Bees for Development 1991).

Although beekeeping can only rarely become the sole source of income and livelihood for people in the Third World, its role as a source of supplementary earnings, food, and employment should not be underestimated. Key points in the argument that beekeeping is a key element in promoting rural self-reliance are that:

* Beekeeping promotes rural diversification and hence is an alternate source of income and employment, particularly in areas where arable land is restricted and demographic growth is resulting in insufficiently profitable landholdings.

* Beekeeping is an activity that has successfully been adopted by women in many parts of the continent (Clauss 1992).

* Beekeeping allows for a degree of risk avoidance by providing a reliable, high-value product that enables rural farmers to survive in times of economic crisis. This is particularly true of beeswax, which can be stored indefinitely.

* Beekeeping clearly is a low-cost, sustainable undertaking with a low environmental impact. The spin-off of enhanced plant pollination is an invaluable one.

* Although honey is not a primary source of food, it can be used as a dietary supplement. In addition, its cultural significance should not be ignored.

Recorded European evidence of traditional beekeeping in southern Africa dates back to 1594 in Angola. David Livingstone noted the presence of log and bark hives in the upper Zambezi area in 1854 (Clauss 1992). The relevance today of this form of economic activity is evidenced by statistics from a single district, Babati, in Tanzania, where some 6,000 bee colonies produce a total of 60,000-90,000 kilograms of honey a year, with a value equivalent to U.S. $11,000-$17,000 (Ntenga and Mugongo 1991). A growing importance of honey-based self-reliance strategies is suggested by a doubling in the number of rural beekeeping clubs in Malawi, from forty-two to ninety-two, over the course of only two years (Mensing 1993a). In this article we first explore the relevance of locally appropriate self-reliance strategies in southern Africa, then discuss southern African bees and indigenous beekeeping and the potential of this activity to supplement rural income. Our focus then shifts to an examination of the limited support given by certain aid agencies to increase the effectiveness of traditional beekeeping. …

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