An international NGO has helped train a group of bee farmers honey production. Syed Asma reports on the Bees for Business program of Mercy Corps.
In 2005, Kashmiri beekeepers dealt with a huge loss when most of their crops (bees) were affected by a disease caused by a mite called Vorra. “The disease was not difficult to tackle if you had proper training,” says Dr Paramjeet Singh,a veterinarian. However, most beekeepers in Kashmir focus on taking their family business forward, or assisting their friends in producing honey—and so many of them are not properly trained.
Mercy Corps—a US based NGO—recently took up a pilot project called “Bees for Business”, through which they trained 50 youth interested in bee keeping. Now, these trained bee keepers have developed their own product, ‘Kashmir Valley Honey’, launched it with Kashmir Valley Products, and it is available on market shelves.
Sumaira Hassan, 24, from Harwan, is one of the beneficiaries of Mercy Corps’ program.She is a high school dropout, and is the highest qualified girl in her family. She was good academically, and had no financial constraints, but her parents did not allow her to continue with her studies.
“Our family does not like their girls going out to attend schools or offices. They do not encourage us to do that,” says Sumaira. This is one of the reasons she now wants rear bees and produce honey. “This business can be managed within four walls.”
She has joined her father, who already was in this business. She says it is easy to befriend a bee than any other human being and has some amazing facts of bees to share. “When you get a bee sting twice or thrice you are immune to cold and influenza for the rest of your life,” she believes. “This is what my father says and it has worked on me,” she laughs.
A proper training has helped Sumaira in many ways. Back when the Vorramite attacked bees in Kashmir,her father suffered from a loss of lakhs of rupees.He almost lost his entire bee population. “If I was trained properly then, I think I would have surely minimized the loss,” she says. Sumaira is now aware of all kinds of bee diseases and knows their remedies as well, she knows how to increase their production and dreams of being among the highest honey producers of the Valley.
Her father owned 10 bee colonies, but after Sumaira attended her training classes, she has managed to increase the colonies to 80, thereby increasing the honey output as well.
Because Sumaira’s father has been in the business for some time now, she has the advantage of being recognized in her locality for producing honey.
“Earlier,most of our customers were locals, but since our production increased, we now have many customers from outside the village as well. Also,my product has made them a promising customer. They now only visit us for purchasing honey in the village,” she says. “Honey has a religious relevance in Kashmir and the winter season has helped to increase sales. Besides, local honey is a salable product because of its taste and quality, that is why I want to invest in it further,” says Sumaira. She is more confident now, as she has been trained for bee farming and for marketing her product as well.
Many youth beneficiaries of the “Bees for Business” programsay they have found an opportunity to be financially independent after attending Mercy Corps’ 14-month long training session.
Mohammed Amin from Chackdara is planning to open a store of his own. “I will be the first person in my family who will do something different than our fruit business. Something of my own,” says Amin. He presently own five bee colonies, and has partnered with a few friends, who already own some 100-150 colonies.
“Earlier, we tried to establish this business on our own but we were not successful because we were not trained. Proper training in this profession is very necessary, as this is a very delicate business to handle. Diseases can easily attack and bad weather can cause setbacks. An adequate understanding can help a lot in minimizing the loss,” he adds.
Amin says he will implement every bit of the training he received to increase production. He hopes that one day; he will establish a full-fledged business of bee farming.
“These training workshops have given me the exposure and confidence that I can be financially independent and can earn of my own. I can also help my family business—honey bees can help increase fruit production,” he says.
For this particular project, Mercy Corps has catered to two districts—Shalimar and Bandipora. They reached out to the regions of Dhara in Shalimar, and Ajas, Argham, Inderkoot and Odina in Bandipora. From each village,10 youth were selected for the project,making a total of 50 beneficiaries.
Hyder Ali from Odina is one of them. He has completed a Masters’ in English from IGNOU.
From a poor family, Hyder wanted to earn an amount that would at least support his education. “I used to work with an NGO in the district; through which I came to know about Mercy Corp’s project. I was interested in learning the skill that can help me to earn in the future,” he says.
Hyder wants the group of 50 beneficiaries to stay together, so they can launch an independent project. “I want to have a processing unit of our own and carry it forward as a small scale industry,” he says.
These 50 beekeepers were divided into five groups, and were provided with 60 colonies and the required equipment. “We linked them with the government departments dealing with apiculture, agriculture and rural development so that they can explore their facilities. They are registered with them as well,” says Showkat Hussain, project officer, Bees for Business.
Additionally, the NGO hired professionals to train the beneficiaries in marketing skills. In collaboration with J&K Bank, the Rural Employment Training Institute (JKBSRETI) was launched as well.
Today, these 50 beneficiaries have 300 colonies, and have extracted 12 quintals of honey, says Showkat. The cost of bottling, labeling and branding was all taken up by Mercy Corps. According to the organization, the 50 trained people will now work independently.
Mercy Corps is planning to take this project forward by involving many other areas and increasing youth participation. “Seeing the market demand and the quality of the Kashmiri honey, Mercy Corps has prioritized this in its list,” says Firdous Ahmed Ganaie, Agri business consultant for Mercy Corps.
“Kashmir has the potential to produce best honey and we are training our youth to explore these resources,” he adds. Kashmir is producing non agricultural honey. Its bees usually feed on the Kikar and Shole posh (Tulsi) in the forests rather than mustard, as is the case in Punjab and Jammu.
“During a blind taste test in the Kashmir Haatexhibition this summer, our product won against one of the leading Indian products, Dabur. This speaks volumes about the taste of the pure honey our bee keepers have produced,” says Firdous. They were allowed a space in Kashmir Haat as they are registered with Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC).
The group of 50 bee keepers is now independent of Mercy Corps and hasformed a corporate of its members which will help them stay together and perhaps, launch an independent brand of their own.