The son of a beekeeper, Emmanuel Kajugujugu grew up learning how to harvest honey in the village of Rega, nestled in the hillside around the Gishwati forest in Rwanda’s northwest.
But beekeeping was never enough to survive on, so people would often sell wood that they had harvested from the forest, or clear trees to create pasture for cattle grazing to supplement their income.
Coupled with increasingly erratic rains due to climate change, the resulting deforestation, land degradation and destruction of a protected ecosystem was creating deadly landslides and floods that were ruining farmland.
“When the government told us to stop using the forest, we formed a cooperative to try and get more honey,” says Kajugujugu, now 37.
Eight cooperatives were formed in the Nyabihu district in 2016, and with the help of UN Environment and Rwanda’s Environmental Management Authority (REMA), they started working together on a project to help people build alternative livelihoods to logging and animal rearing.
“We were trained on how to manage and care for the bees and collect the honey,” said Leoneste Harerimana, President of Nyabihu Beekeepers Union, which now has over 350 members.
By providing beekeepers with modern hives to replace their traditional hives to boost honey production and ease the collection process, UN Environment has helped beekeepers to triple or quadruple their earnings.
“In the past, I didn’t know how to transfer bees and how to look after them properly. But with the modern hives you can see inside and give them food and check to see no other animals are inside and taking the honey,” said Kajugujugu.
“After the beekeeping union started, we got training and equipment that meant we were producing more honey and we found it was enough.”
Kajugujugu went from earning around $35 per honey harvest to over $100. With the additional income, he found he could save enough to buy more farmland and a milking cow to feed his six children.
“Before the project, I was not able to provide enough for them, and now I can,” he said.
With $92,000 of funding spent on building a proper honey collection centre in Bigogwe, providing technicians and processing equipment, the Global Environment Facility-backed UN Environment project turned beekeeping from a side business into a real trade.
“Before, I was getting a little money for the small amounts of honey I was bringing in. Now, I bring a lot more honey in and get a chunk of money at once that I can actually do something with,” said Esron Senyenzi, a beekeeper from Moringa village.
Senyuzi, a 63-year-old father of eight, used the extra money from honey to invest in a cow and put two children through school to become teachers. Now, he can afford to pay casual labourers to look after his farm.
The greater volume of honey being brought in and processed at the collection centre has also unlocked bigger markets, with honey from Nyabihu now being sent hours down winding hillsides to the capital Kigali.
Now that they are guaranteed better harvests, beekeepers are also free from financial stresses that may have made them less able to focus on their business and more likely to turn to the forest for quick returns.
“There wasn’t a market before, but now the honey is brought here and we pay in full, and if someone needs an advance because they have a problem, we can do that,” said Harerimana.
“We applied what we learned and got money and honey.”
The project has been such a success that people in neighbouring areas have started shifting their attention away from the forest and towards beekeeping, and the change is noticeable.
“Now, you don’t find the cows in the hills and on the mountain. Now, they are kept in pens,” said Harerimana.
This story was originally published by UN Environment.