Afghan honey-makers still struggle to compete with foreign imports from China, Pakistan and Iran but a handful of entrepreneurial women have made apiculture a growing sector in Afghanistan, especially in the north.
A beekeeper shows off one of her colonies in Balkh Province. (Photos: Asghar Noor Mohammad)
Maryam doesn't only have a bee on her bonnet, she has ten boxes of Italian bees on her rooftop apiary in Balkh Province. Her honey, sold mainly on local markets, is of a high quality but competition from cheaper foreign equivalents and boiled water with sugar, 'fake honey', means local customers are still hard to come by.
”People want cheap honey,” says Najibullah Shahib, owner of a specialist store in Mazar-e Sharif. “They do not really think about quality,” adds the bottled-produce retailer, explaining why Afghan honey struggles to impose itself vis-a-vis cheaper foreign imports on the domestic market.
Maryam is one of fifty women who benefited from training programmes sponsored by the US and Germany to develop apiculture in Balkh Province in the last ten years. The mother of eight started out with a single box of bees she purchased for 100 US dollars, but now sells 150 kilograms of home-made honey every year, earning 1,000 US dollars to support her ten-member family.
Trouble with Afghan colonies
“Raising bees is very easy if you have received the necessary training,” says Maryam, who sells her honey for between 10 and 15 USD per kilo. “I have experience now.” Maryam uses poisonous meat to keep away carnivorous killer-bees and feeds her Caucasian pollinators flowers in spring and sugar in winter. The beekeeper and breadwinner has learned to cure her colonies of various afflictions but a lack of qualified vets in her sector means that she still loses bees to disease every year. Three colonies have died so far.
Taqarol Naqshbandi, an apiarist with the Provincial Department of Agriculture in Balkh, tests the quality of local honey.
The major problem Maryam faces however is one shared by the 150 other apiarist families in Balkh Province: there is a lack of trust in local produce on the domestic market. “Some people boil sugar in water, turn it into honey and sell it on the local market and this has increased the price and impacted the trust of people in the quality of locally-produced honey,” says Taqarol Naqshbandi, head of the apiculture training programme at the Provincial Department of Agriculture in Balkh Province. Consumers prefer cheap Iranian and Pakistani honey, which can cost up to 50 percent less than the Afghan equivalent in local markets.
The imported honey is packaged professionally with branded labels, while local produce, such as Maryam's, is usually sold in makeshift recycled plastic bottles. Afghan honey is still sold at trade fairs, but shelves at local specialist stores continue to be filled with foreign competitors. This means that producers like Maryam are forced to sell their honey in their local neighbourhoods at cut-price costs.
Such challenges have not deterred newcomers from wanting to enrol in the government's training programme. At least 100 women, according to Naqshbandi, are currently signed-up to study apiculture at Balkh University. Women are particularly active in the sector, says Taher Mohammadi, a professor of livestock at Balkh University.
“Women are more interested than men in bees”
“Women are more interested than men in bees,” says Mohammadi. “On the one hand, there are many NGOs that support such projects and on the other hand, women can do it in their homes.” In a country where women are still largely excluded from the workforce, beekeeping allows many female jobseekers employment opportunities.
Despite the interest, Mohammadi says the sector still suffers from serious infrastructural problems. The largely home-based industry prevents professional apiaries from developing. “There is only one small farm with a few boxes for those interested in learning to raise bees,” says Mohammadi. “We also lack experts in the field,” adds the professor. Naqshbandi insists however that women are key to building a successful industry. “Women who currently raise bees in their houses are either widows or women who are not financially well off. This business helps them a lot,” says the government representative.
Across the country women continue to be pioneers in the field of beekeeping. Organisations like Bees Without Borders have trained Afghan beekeepers and honey is produced in various regions of Afghanistan, including Nangarhar, Takhar and Paktia. The pesticide-free honey is of a very high quality, so good that the authorities are struggling to sell it. Naqshbandi, who trained during the war in Tajikistan and has been a mainforce of the industry for the last 20 years, says five tons of Afghan honey from local producers is kept in storage units at the Provincial Department of Agriculture. “It's just sitting here due to a lack of a local market,” says Naqshbandi.