Bees and Trees
How many tons of CO2 can a tree absorb annually? This very question popped into my mind last Sunday afternoon as I sat in a garden chair gazing over a clump of trees whilst on a farm visit just over 100 kilometres outside Lusaka. I recall a discussion I had with Sven on the matter, and after a thorough analysis of the question at hand we painstakingly came up with a few figures:
The average full-grown tree weighing 2.5 tons would store half its biomass in carbon and absorb around 25kg of CO2 annually.
According to NHSForest.org, a hectare of forest can house anywhere between 1,000 to 2,500 trees depending on its density.
This brings me to the honey industry in Zambia. Honey production is growing rapidly in the country which has brought about an added focus on the traditional methods in which honey has been harvested over the centuries using wood provided by the forest. It is no secret that there have been concerns about the amount of deforestation occurring in Zambia, which internationally ranks as one of the countries with the highest levels of forest depletion.
Zambia still has a large amount of forest area around the country. This is mostly situated in the North-Western Province towards Angola and the DRC, around the Kafue National Park, the Lower Zambezi and in pockets all around the country. Many of those forests are unspoilt. Very little chemical inputs are incorporated into the agricultural methods adopted by the locals as they are unable to consistently afford herbicides and pesticides; therefore, most of the farming taking place in the area is comprised of small scale to subsistence farming. Livestock is mainly kept for personal use and not utilised commercially which means there is a minimal use of medicines and antibiotics. These conditions all culminate into factors that make the region conducive for wild bees to thrive - meaning, the bees can produce top-quality regular and organic honey that is desired by both local and international markets.
It is difficult to estimate the exact size of the honey production industry in Zambia as a significant amount of it is conducted by the informal sector. According to the Zambian Development Agency (ZDA), Zambia produces 2,000 tons of raw honey annually. The industry is expected to grow five-fold over the coming years . In short, we have an industry with a top-notch product that is rapidly expanding. The question therefore is, Is this sustainable? Let’s revisit the case of the trees:
The traditional method of Zambian honey production stretches back over centuries. The farmers skin the bark off a tree and make one hive from that bark. The bark hive lasts for approximately three to four years; then the process of skinning a tree starts afresh. Over time the tree dies without the bark. This means that with every hive produced a tree dies every three to four years. Another question I would also ask is how many hives do we need to sustain an industry planning to produce 10,000 tons of honey a year? One hive produces approximately 10kg of honey on average per year. So, we can estimate the following:
10,000 tons = 1m hives = 250,000 trees to be cut for bark hives a year.
Using my estimate above, this translates into a minimum carbon footprint of 250,000 tons per year, which is considerably significant.
There is a solution, the industry can grow without potentially having a negative impact on the environment by introducing top bar hives. This method does not change the traditional form of harvesting honey. A single tree can produce a minimum of 20 hives with a lifespan of 15 years or more. Now doing the simple math, this would add to an annual carbon saving of over 240,000 tons, which is substantial.
This is a no-brainer in my view, especially considering that top-bar hives are easier to harvest and pound for pound produce better quality honey. There is one downside to the top-bar hives – the price point. A single hive, delivered with harvesting equipment plus the necessary training, will set-you back approximately USD 30. This is a significant amount considering the expected growth of the industry. This will only be viable if the price of honey justifies the additional costs. Would you be willing to pay an additional dollar for that honey, most likely yes! I would - but I am aware of the difference of the two types of honey and the additional work and effort that goes into the production of “top-bar honey”.
And so, in conclusion, this is an industry that requires various stakeholders to work hand in hand and will create several benefits to the community – The local farmers receive a permanent source of income; the consumer gets a top-quality product sourced from an unspoilt region. The investors will reap an above average return all while the environment benefits from a reduction in deforestation.
One of our first investments will be in a honey company that focuses on enhancing the value chain, and thus will increase the margin of the product so as to ensure that the additional costs of expansion are covered, and the profitability of the business assured. Additionally, the top bar hives will include more women in the ownership of the hives. Distribution of the hives to the farmer will be at no cost against an offtake agreement as they would find it difficult to afford the cost of the top bar hives.
I am sure you can envision yourself pouring that flavourful Zambian wild forest honey on a piece of gorgonzola cheese all while helping preserve the bees and forests in rural Zambia. All this in conjunction with the raising of the farmers’ income level resulting in increased spending power, and a reduction of carbon emissions. This surely underpins the win-win approach of impact investing.