For Zambian honey farmers, text messaging has sweet rewards

The Zambia Honey Council connects suppliers to the market in novel ways.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (12 November, 2012)_International demand for Zambia’s sweet, rich honey makes it a key sector for growth, with the potential to improve lives of local beekeepers while helping protect the country’s forests – but producers will have to find ways to remain competitive, a report by the Center for International Forestry Research says.

Because honey is primarily produced and harvested in rural areas, far from buyers and markets, many beekeepers are starting to collaborate to increase their bargaining power.

Whether working alone or as part of an association or cooperative, however, all are struggling to find ways to market their product. For some, the answer may lie with mobile phone text messaging.

“The SMS marketing system gives beekeepers access to the buyers. They can find out when the buyers are going to be in the area and where their collection points are,” says Fiona Paumgarten, a CIFOR researcher and lead author of Benefits, challenges, and enabling conditions of collective action to promote sustainable production and marketing of products from Africa’s dry forests.

Zambia is the top exporter of honey in southern Africa, followed by Tanzania and South Africa. It also has seen the most significant growth, with the value of its exports jumping from $76,000 in 1997 to $626,000 in 2005.

That’s partly because it’s the only country in the region with a certified, fair-trade producer group, allowing beekeeper associations to sell their honey in Europe at a higher premium.

In 2009, the same year Paumgarten carried out her research, the Zambian Farmers’ Union developed an SMS marketing system for agro products. Eventually, with the help of the Zambia National Farmers Union, the scheme was extended to the beekeeping sector.

Information on individual and collective  buyers  _ their names, contact details, and the type of honey they  want or are looking for _ was gathered  and entered into an SMS marketing system database that both honey producers and buyers are now able to access.

The SMS marketing system gives beekeepers access to the buyers. They can find out when the buyers are going to be in the area and where their collection points are.

This has enabled them to negotiate prices and quantities directly _ information that is then often shared from one producer to another, said Mercy Mupeta-Kandulu, a beekeeping expert and extension officer at the Provincial Forest Office in Lusaka Province.

The Zambia Honey Council, meanwhile, has worked with Beekeepers Associations to set up bulking centers at strategic places within communities. This enables honey producers to pool their product, look for a market and negotiate the prices with the buyer. And because of the high quantities involved, buyers are more willing to incur the time and expense of travel.

This also enables them to look for honey that meets quality standards. One of the requirements of the bulking centers is that all of the honey must be stored in clean, dry plastic or stainless steel containers with an airtight lid. The storage rooms must be well-ventilated. In addition the honey must have less than 19 percent moisture content, be free of brood and pollen combs and maintain the original scent of the nectar source from which it was collected, Kandulu said.

These bulking systems, too, are part of the SMS marketing network.

Paumgarten, now a PhD student with the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said the scheme offers tremendous, new opportunities, for sellers and buyers, especially in a large country like Zambia, where the rural road infrastructure is poor and the cost of travel high.

“Access to information on the different prices offered by different buyers gives the beekeeper more power,” she said.

“They can select which buyer they want to contact, or if they are part of the cooperative, the cooperative as a whole can set their own price (based on what the different buyers are offering) thus their negotiating power is improved.”

Though much of the honey production in the country occurs in remote areas, most people have access to a mobile phone, even if there is just one phone per rural settlement. Mobile phone reception is also not a huge problem. Transmitters have been erected in most rural areas and credit is readily available in small stores and homesteads.

“I was always amazed at how people managed to find one spot in their village where they got reception,” Paumgarten said.

“You would sometimes see people standing on top of a high termite mound on the phone.”

And even when there is no signal at all, it’s much cheaper to travel to the nearest area with reception than it is to go all the way to the market.

You would sometimes see people standing on top of a high termite mound [to get] phone reception.

The system does come with challenges, however.

The buyers that are taking part may not always offer the best prices _ meaning there may be other organizations and individuals that are not on the system that buy at better prices _ or there simply isn’t much variance in prices being offered.

The other problem is that SMS marketing is not always used, because some producers do not understand the system. The text messages are in English, which not all producers can understand, isolating them from the program.

Kandulu advises that the Zambia Honey Council implement a toll free number in different languages that informs producers how they can participate and access product information. She said translating study  circle materials — recently designed to help teach both buyers and producers about marketing — into local languages can also enhance understanding among the honey producers.

This new publication is part of CIFOR’s research programme on Africa’s dry forests under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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