Meet the beekeepers of the mangrove forests

Members of the Cwebeni cooperative trek four kilometres to harvest honey deep in the forests of the Wild Coast

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Members of the Sise Cwebeni Bee Farming Cooperative, formed in 2010 by eight villagers, harvest honey from deep in the Mngazana mangrove forest. Photos: Lucas Nowicki

It’s 7am in Cwebeni, a small village near Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape, and 42-year-old Nonkqubela Mpumapi is preparing to trek four kilometres to harvest honey deep in the mangrove forests.

Mpumapi is a member of the Sise Cwebeni Bee Farming Cooperative, formed in 2010 by eight villagers from Cwebeni.

To visit their beehives, members of the cooperative have to walk through the Mngazana mangroves, the third largest mangrove forest in South Africa, where the hives are located.

Cwebeni is located on the periphery of the mangrove forests of Mngazana, and is difficult to access via road. With very few employment opportunities and little access to basic services, most villagers rely on social grants and remittances to survive.

The catalyst for starting a beekeeping cooperative came one morning in 2008, when beekeeping volunteers visited the local school. “They went to the bush and showed us how to install bee hives. But we did not have enough understanding of bee farming then,” says Mpumapi.

Dressed in their safety gear, the bee-keepers use smoke to keep the bees calm during hive inspections and harvesting.

This led a group of women from Cwebeni to visit the Phila Beekeeping Cooperative, formed in 2003 by eight women from Zibungu village in Libode, about an hour’s drive from Cwebeni on the R61.

“We didn’t understand that you could farm bees, but after we visited the women in Libode, I knew we could do it,” says 62-year-old Nolulamile Lazola, another beekeeper from Cwebeni.

A year after its formation, the cooperative started receiving funding from Pick ‘n Pay.

Leonora Sauls, head of philanthropy at the Ackerman Foundation, said the foundation partnered with the community to help “alleviate unemployment” in Cwebeni and “to encourage and support their enterprising spirit, in the hope that it would result in self-reliance”.

Central to the foundation’s support for the cooperative was training. Wouter Dell, a professional bee-keeper from Cape Town, was sent to help train the members and set up a processing facility for the honey.

Dell has over two decades of experience working with bees, founding BMan, a company specialising in cruelty-free bee removal. He said he first visited Cwebeni in 2010 and travelled there repeatedly over four years to train and educate the villagers about the importance of bees in the local ecosystem.

Mangrove honey is a rare type of honey that is said to be slightly saltier because of the saltwater environment. Most of the honey comes during summer, when there is an abundance of flowering plants in the area, according to beekeeper Nonkqubela Mpumapi.

“The concept I used to teach was that if you look after the bees, then the bees will look after you,” Dell told GroundUp.

Mpumapi joked that they were “clueless about bees”.

The cooperative established a training and bottling facility for honey in Cwebeni in 2013, repurposing an unused community building. Other funders included the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) and the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT).

In 2018, the Pick n Pay foundation exited the partnership to allow for community ownership. Tragedy struck on a dry winter night in 2020, when the co-operative’s training and processing facility burnt down with nearly all their equipment. It is unclear how the fire started.

This severely affected the operations of the co-operative and its ability to produce and bottle honey. However, the members have continued at a smaller scale.

“We lost our equipment. It was devastating. We now don’t have any place to bottle the honey,” says Lazola.

The beekeepers take off their protective gear before the long walk back to the village.

Vovo Qhuzelwa has fond memories of the cooperative’s training and processing facility. “People would come from all parts of the province to visit the centre and learn about bee farming,” he says. Before beekeeping, Qhuzelwa worked as a labourer in Durban. He says he much prefers working with bees, finding it interesting and not as physically demanding.

The cooperative now sells the honey for about R60 per 500ml to nearby Entabeni Hardware stores and to the Umngazi Hotel and Spa.

With some of the beekeepers getting old, they are struggling to walk the long distances and to carry equipment, says Lazola.

Nolulamile Lazola leads the hike back to Cwebeni. Members of the cooperative say they need a new building to bottle the honey and help to transport materials from the forests.

Bee-keeper Nosiseko Klaas hopes the cooperative can grow to support more members of the community. She wants to pass on her skills to the next generation.

“This has helped relieve my poverty, so it is important that the youth also get the opportunity,” says Klaas.

Members of the cooperative stand in the ruins of the processing facility that burnt down in 2020. From left to right, back row: Nonkqubela Mpumapi, Nozazile Khonqo, Nosiseko Klaas, Qhuzelwa Vovo and Nolulamile Lazola. Front row, left to right: Xola Lazola, Nokonwabisa Vovo and Lwandiso Vovo.

TOPICS:  Environment Farming

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