Priced at between $6-$9 (Ksh500-Ksh800), one kilo of honey in Kenya costs five times what a litre of petrol does ($1.20 or Ksh105). And in the Arab market, a jar of honey can fetch almost double this amount ($15-$20).
It is a price tag that has honey producers all over the world salivating. While Kenya is not one of the largest exporters of honey globally, it is a trade that is being closely watched as Kenyan producers strategise on how to pioneer their entry into this lucrative honey market. Ethiopia is the largest producer of honey in Africa, and according to USAID, produces approximately 45,300t annually. Tanzania is the second largest (8,000t annually according to the Grassroots Business Fund), and Kenya ranks third in the region, followed by Uganda and then Rwanda, with just 4,000t a year.
“African honey has a unique flavour profile, which makes it comparable to some of the premium honey in the markets,” said Alexei Bezborodov, who heads supply chain operations at the Kenya office of Honey Care Africa. His company, which works with farmers in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan, produces 60t of honey in a year.
“It’s not a large amount; just sufficient for our retail operations. But we will get into the hundreds of tonnes by initiating our export activities and opening up new markets in Africa,” he said confidently. By mid this year, Honey Care Africa (K) will export three containers of 20t each to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and possibly Jordan, and plans to upscale the amount to a container a month by 2015.
“The UAE is the most important market for us. It’s the largest with the greatest purchasing power. Price sensitivity is low, and there is an appreciation of premium products,” said Bezborodov.
Honey Care Africa’s Tanzanian subsidiary has set a strong example to its Kenyan counterpart and annually exports 160t of honey; it is the largest exporter to the European Union.
Home or away?
But Honey Care Africa’s export focused ambitions are vastly different from that of other producers in Kenya. Lydia Mbiti of Makambu Honey, which handles 50t in a year and supplies some of the country’s larger manufacturers such as Premier Foods, Kitui Woodlands and Kate’s Organics, said that the high levels of local demand for honey have prevented her from looking at the export market.
“In Kenya the demand for honey is really high. Packers or producers don’t want to get involved in export because of the logistics involved. They prefer to sell locally or in the region because there is a readily available market,” she said.
Demand for honey in Kenya is so high, she continues, that the country is unable to satisfy itself and is forced to import from neighbouring Tanzania. According to the latest statistics from the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, Kenya imported honey worth $228,604 from markets like Egypt, Australia and Tanzania.
So with a ready and easily accessible local market that offers good prices, Kenyan honey producers are unwilling to undergo the bureaucratic rigours of export, which involve higher transport costs and quality testing.
The founder and managing director of another long standing honey producer, Ernest Simeoni of African Beekeepers, suspects that 80% of the honey sold in the Kenyan market originates from Tanzania, Sudan, the Congo and Uganda.
“Honey is a complicated game in East Africa,” he said. “There are no commercial producers of honey; they are all smallholder traditional bee keepers,” which exacerbates the ability to meet the large demands of markets like the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“Honey is a very special item to Muslims. It’s a high-value commodity; it’s in the Quran,” said Simeoni. “The Arab market wants a container a month, that’s 20t a month. We can’t even supply our own market.”
African Beekeepers annually produces 10t of honey through 1,000 hives located in areas like Maasai Mara, Narok and Laikipia.
That said, Simeoni, who has been in the industry for 20 years, exported honey for the first time in 2012 when he sold three tonnes to the US. Africa, however, does not export significant amounts to the US market, and in 2013 the US only imported 3,000 kilgrammes of honey from Kenya for $15,000, according to the US department of Agriculture.
“I got a good price but I could get the same price here,” said Simeoni, adding that export regulations were a significant downside in the experience. Instead he predicts that markets like Nigeria – where demand for honey is driven by a populous Muslim population and an increasingly health conscious middle class – will take centre stage in the honey export market in coming years.
“Nigeria is an eating machine. I was approached by someone who wanted to import five tonnes of honey a month,” he said.
A study by Global Industry Analysts Inc predicts that honey production globally will reach 1.9m tonnes by 2015. Kenya’s export statistics between 2008 and 2010 support this trend with volumes more than doubling from 7,935 kilos to 18,871 kilos over the period. But since then, honey producers have experienced a drastic drop in production.
“I produce 10t. Last year my production dropped by 50%,” said Simeoni of African Beekeepers. “There’s no honey. The bees have declined and people are choosing not to [keep bees] anymore.”
The apiculture sector in East Africa is beset by the same challenges that agriculture faces including climate change, poor infrastructure inhibiting access to markets and declining interest in farming among the younger generation. Apiculture consultant Mburugu notes a similar trend among the 5,000 farmers she works with in the areas of Kitui, Baringo, Laikipia, West Pokot, Tharaka Nithi. That is, honey production has decreased nationally.
Ideally, each hive, she explained, ought to produce 20 to 30 kilos of honey per harvest, with two harvests in a year. But a sharp decline in volume has been experienced because of climate change.
“Natural products like honey depend on the rain and on bee-attracting plants,” she said.
Simeoni, however, believes that the greatest threat to the sector is the recent entry of a deadly pest that is affecting the African bee. While it is unclear whether it is the same parasite which hit honey producers in America, Asia and Europe mid last year and cut their volumes by two thirds, Simeoni’s concern is that regional governments are yet to acknowledge the threat and act to reverse the trend on the apiculture sector.
Like other Kenyan producers, Simeoni has diversified his business approach in an attempt to reduce dependence on a product that is seasonal and vulnerable to climate patterns. So African Beekeepers, like Honey Care Africa, manufactures and sells beehives and other equipment used in the production of honey to farmers across the region including Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan and Somalia. The sales avenue is also designed to boost a dying trade.
“But the money is in the honey,” Simeoni insists, emphasising that is where the future of the business lies. Indeed fast increases in the price of honey combined with flagging global volumes spell a promising outlook for producers who can scale up their volumes.
The only question is how they will do this, and whether Kenya will eventually emerge at the forefront of trade in the golden liquid.