17 June, 2019

The buzz about beekeeping

The Tata Trusts’ technical assistance to District Rural Development Agency’s Chittoor beekeeping initiative promotes a supplemental livelihood opportunity to thousands of beneficiaries

“I cannot believe that honey production from 12 bee boxes is actually improving my family’s income prospects,” says Selvi, in happy disbelief. “Like many other women in my village, I thought I was destined to continue as a daily wage labourer.”

Until recently, Selvi was one among the many landless labourers working in the searing heat of the unforgiving summers in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh. Like them, she too had forfeited her freedom and the right to dignity of life to scrape a living. She had no memory of a time when her life was any different or less difficult. The penurious existence seemed mandatory; impossible to break and unbearable to live in.

It was at this bleak time that a ray of hope appeared. The Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH), a centrally-sponsored scheme of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, regarded the honeybee as an important catalyst for cross-pollination in order to maximise agricultural production; beekeeping is one of its key elements. At the same time, the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), in consultation with the Vijayavahini Charitable Foundation (VCF), a Section 8 company supported by Tata Trusts, was designing a beekeeping initiative in Chittoor as part of a community-driven approach to provide a sustainable livelihood. It initiated a Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) to impact the lives of the rural farmers in Chittoor; the FPO with the expertise of VCF & DRDA trained farmers with small landholdings in beekeeping, helping them increase their agricultural productivity and provide market access.

The initiative is significant because it did not supplant the farmers’ existing source of income; it supplemented it. For Selvi and others like her, the initiative was welcome because it was remarkably light on the capital front — 40% (Rs24,000) of her total investment of Rs60,000 was subsidised by the Horticulture Department under the MIDH. The remaining Rs36,000 was taken as a loan from the village organisation established by DRDA-Chittoor.

Initially, Selvi was unaware of the practical aspects of beekeeping. The basic-level training programmes had not prepared her for this new livelihood activity. “Attending the awareness and beginners training programme organised by DRDA-Chittoor with technical assistance from the Tata Trusts have definitely helped.” There’s a newfound confidence in Selvi’s voice as she looks over the prevailing rates and expected demand. “I did not expect much from the first harvest, but with prevailing rates in the region being Rs300-350 per kilogram, and with a total produce of over 24kg, I can make over Rs48,000/ annum.” Today, Selvi has more than doubled her monthly income with her bee colony. Selvi is now looking to expand her business and get more bee boxes with the financial subsidy from the Horticulture Department under the MIDH.

Selvi is just one among the many beneficiaries of this initiative, which intends to make Chittoor a major supplier in the domestic market for honey, beeswax and other high-value hive products, thus helping to establish the district as one of India’s honey hubs by 2024. In this context, an FPO was formed in Chittoor with an outreach of 2,000 members. These 2,000 women were trained in apiculture, out of whom 1,620 members began beekeeping with 9,720 boxes. So far, the FPO has harvested 4,290kg of honey. A bee nursery has been established at Yadamari Mandal in Chittoor with 500 bee colonies to supply boxes and honey hives to FPO members.

The initiative has not only created employment opportunities for the 2,000 SHG members, small farmers and hitherto unemployed youth, it has gone a long way in empowering the women in the villages. Today, these women find that their business is independent of seasons — there’s a perpetual demand for honey, and it peaks during the festive and wedding seasons. With bees being of prime importance to restore the ecological balance, and with untapped markets to breach, apiculture is not only economically viable, but also a sustainable business idea.

Moving on

Depending on availability of resources and support, DRDA, Horticulture Department, VCF and the Trusts expect that the project will:

  • Enable the sustainable livelihood of SHG members, farmers and youth, and will test the potential opportunity for the production of bee hives, value addition and online marketing.
  • Strengthen the beekeeping activities as a collective endeavour by establishing a beekeeper’s society through which it can aim to scale up honey production, improve packaging and marketing of their honey, and produce honey-based value-added products.
  • Develop holistic honeybee farming integrating with horticulture/ agriculture, entrepreneurs, cutting edge technologies and markets development
  • Will demonstrate successful multi-stakeholder alliances that leverage innate competencies, professional strengths and resources of entities from different sectors for enhanced outcomes.

The impact is already being seen on the ground in Chittoor, the community is trying to strengthen its beekeeping activities as a collective endeavour by an established beekeeper’s society through which it aims to scale up honey production, improve packaging and marketing of their honey, and produce honey-based value-added products. Selvi is hopeful that with the launch of the Apiculture Mission in the state, he and his community members will be able to access a wider platform to sell their wares and carry on this profitable livelihood activity on a sustainable basis.

For Selvi, the impact is both personal and professional. From a desperate woman on the fringe of penury with no hope of a better life to an iconic entrepreneur who’s helping her fellow women chart their course to financial freedom, the bees have brought Selvi a long way.

Today, Selvi belongs to the strong cadres of skilled local master trainers who have been spreading the knowledge of scientific beekeeping and helping women across Chittoor to develop a better livelihood for themselves through taking up beekeeping as an entrepreneurial initiative.