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New beekeeping cooperatives to improve livelihoods in West Africa

By Janey Fugate

The natural wax company Koster Keunen is set to establish West Africa’s first organized, regional supply line of smallholder beekeepers, producing organic wax and honey that meet international standards.

Receiving a $1.7 million grant through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, the Togolese company will equip farmers in six countries in the region with beekeeping supplies, provide training and guidance for organic certification and establish market linkages for smallholders’ wax, honey and cashew products.

“Our job is not only to produce and trade beeswax, it is to provide security to our customer in terms of quality and in terms of information around the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental impact,” says Sylvain Cattin, Koster Keunen’s General Manager for West Africa.

The Trade Hub is one of USAID’s largest grant facilities and aims to address some of the region’s biggest development challenges, such as women’s empowerment, job creation and food security, through unlocking private capital and directing it to high impact projects. Koster Keunen’s beekeeping and wax venture is one of its first grantees. Koster Keunen West Africa is working with Partnership for Natural Ingredients, a U.S. based company that aligns public and private resources to scale up sustainable sourcing in the food and cosmetic industries.

“Through partnership of business and development programs, we can work at the scale required and address the multi-faceted challenges to establishing sustainable supply chains,” says Joseph Funt, Lead of Multi-Stakeholder Strategy at Partnership for Natural Ingredients. “We are thrilled for the Koster Keunen and Trade Hub partnership and believe it can be a model in the region.”

The Trade Hub’s deal with Koster Keunen directly supports Prosper Africa, a U.S. government initiative to increase trade between the continents. Bringing the full range of U.S. Government resources, Prosper Africa connects U.S. and African businesses with new buyers, suppliers, and investment opportunities. Koster Keunen’s beekeeping project is funded through the Trade Hub by Prosper Africa and its exports will go to U.S. buyers.

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Beekeepers receive training, equipment and a dependable buyer. Photos courtesy of Koster Keunen.

Beekeeping requires specialized skills and steep up-front costs. In addition to trainings on how to safely steward hives and harvest from them, the Trade Hub’s grant will allow Koster Keunen to purchase and distribute an initial 36,000 bee boxes, safety suits and smokers. The firm is committed to strengthening local businesses at each point of the process, with local carpenters in each country contracted to produce the boxes.

“We want to have a long-term commitment to the beekeeper and to show them that this is an activity that can be professional, and they can make good income,” says Cattin. “But to do it the right way… to respect the environment, the bee colony.”

Over the life of the project, Koster Keunen plans to equip over 11,200 beekeepers in multiple countries across the region, connecting a sustainable supply of product with international markets in Europe and the United States.

“Because our partners like Koster Keunen are working in extremely fragile communities, for the Trade Hub, it’s imperative that our investors place people at the center of their business plans,” says Jim Winkler, Creative’s VP of the Economic Growth division. “This gives us even more incentive to work with serious businesses committed to bringing serious change.”

Unlike commercial honey production where companies can rely on huge hives and mechanized harvesting, wax production is better suited to a smallholder model of cultivation. Managing hives for wax makes better business sense, ensuring that this project is sustainable beyond the life of the grant.

Koster Keunen is also paying a premium on traceability and quality. More and more consumers, whether individual buyers or large companies, are demanding transparency in their source ingredients.    

Symbiotic relationships: from the hive to the consumer

Creating equitable, sustainable relationships with smallholder producers has been identified as one of the key pieces of the puzzle in overcoming global challenges of poverty, food insecurity and income inequality.

Beekeeping can increase African smallholders’ income by 10-20 times, giving them another way to diversify their earnings. Because Koster Keunen will be working with established shea and cashew farmers’ collectives, having healthy populations of pollinators can also significantly increase other crops’ yields.

“Installing two bee boxes on one hectare of cashew trees can increase the cashew trees’ yield by at least 50 percent due to the pollination service,” says Cattin.

Cattin says that while shea cultivation seasonal, beekeeping can be a year-round activity with the potential to generate a steadier income for beekeepers.

A major goal for the Trade Hub is to ensure that this kind of growth potential for smallholder farmers translates to opportunities for women, especially in rural areas.

In Koster Keunen’s beekeeping initiative, at least 20 percent of the smallholder farmers trained and certified will be women. Though beekeeping is traditionally seen as male-dominated activity in the region, working through established women’s shea cooperatives gives Koster Keunen access to an untapped market.

“For us it is also about involving youth, so that not just the older generation benefit,” says Cattin.

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Beekeeping gives women an alternative source of income.

Cattin says that Koster Keunen hopes to use its scalable beekeeping model as a way to offer alternative income opportunities to rural communities in a time when more and more young people are forced to migrate to cities for work and services.

“We want… to show that it’s possible to have very strong partnerships, from the beekeeper in West Africa to the customer in Europe and the U.S. We want to bring the right price to ensure a decent life for the farmer.”

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