Under The Mango Tree

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 4, April 2015
Women trainees in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh learning how to tie Apis cerana honeycombs found in the wild, on to the wooden frames of a bee-box. Photo Courtesy: Under The Mango Tree.

During a follow-up visit to a village in Hoshangabad district in Madhya Pradesh, a traditional honey hunter-turned-beekeeper was extracting honey from his bee-box. I noticed that he was pleasantly smiling. When I asked him the reason behind his smile, he said, “I do not need to go deep in the forest and risk my life to hunt beehives anymore. The bees in my box go and bring honey for me! I realised then the difference my work made, and its contribution towards reduced forest dependency for honey," recounted Saurabh Vaity, Programme Associate, Under The Mango Tree (UTMT).

Vaity is one among 15 UTMT staff members, who work in tribal pockets of 11 districts across Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh to enhance the livelihoods of marginal farmers by training them in indigenous beekeeping and thus improving their incomes through enhanced yields and honey.

Founded in 2009 by Vijaya Pastala, a development professional with over two decades of experience at the World Bank, KfW Development Bank, European Commission, Department for International Development and the Aga Khan Foundation, UTMT seeks to diversify livelihoods and improve rural incomes by promoting low-cost indigenous beekeeping.

A key problem Pastala initially confronted was that small beekeeping societies across India produced various flavours of honey that never reached urban markets. While Indias diverse flora led to production of various forms of regional honeys, the urban consumer was only given a single kind of uniform tasting honey. Furthermore, the typical value chain for agricultural commodities - from plough to plate - is long, arduous and unprofitable as farmers often receive only around 25 per cent of the retail price of their produce. As bees play a crucial role as pollinators in increasing agricultural productivity, a powerful idea took shape: what if farmers were trained to add bee boxes on farms to facilitate cross-pollination and were also provided with markets to sell the collected honey?

UTMTs initiatives are environmentally sustainable as the indigenous bee Apis cerana indica is locally available and efficiently pollinates the crops grown by the farmers. This is known to enhance agricultural yields by 30 to 60 per cent on an average and promote crop diversification, thereby increasing household food security and generating marketable surpluses translating to household cash earnings. In the second year after beekeeping training, an additional stream of income from sale of honey and beeswax isalso created.

UTMT conducts beekeeping training at the village level, which are followed by monthly handholding visits. Handholding is important as beekeeping is a seasonal activity that requires different knowledge and practical training to ensure the bee-box is healthy in each season. A healthy, buzzing bee-box is crucial for a farmer to eventually see the benefits of yield increase and honey.

A local cadre of trainers called ‘master trainers are developed within the community itself. These trainers look after the bee-boxes in their village, receive advanced training and take the programme forward to neighbouring villages. Supplies are sourced locally - carpenters are given training to make bee-boxes that are supplied to new project areas, and women self-help groups are trained to make swarm bags and bee veils. Additional livelihoods related to beekeeping such as bee colony spotting, natural colony transfers, colony rearing, honey and wax aggregation are offered to the community. The model, thus, improves livelihoods by creating a sustainable ecosystem of value added beekeeping-related services. UTMTs intervention also benefits the community as a whole by fostering beekeeping-related micro-enterprises and self-employment opportunities in the project villages, and providing guaranteed market-access for their products and services.

An important aspect of UTMTs work is their partnerships with NGOs who already have a field presence in target areas. This enables access to the local community and better community mobilisation. A few partners include the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, BAIF Development Research Foundation, Watershed Organisation Trust, Vrutti, Gujarat Livelihood Promotion Company, Indian Grameen Services, and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme.

A farmer and his wife from Kolhapur, one of Under The Mango Trees early project areas, proudly showcase their bee-box. Photo Courtesy: Under The Mango Tree.

Bees are dying the world over due to various factors, one of them being the use of insecticides called neonicotinoids that are banned in the European Union, but continue to be used in India. Scientists estimate that globally, the survival of over 80 per cent of plant species depends directly on pollinating insects, and more specifically on bees. Four of the main food groups on our plate - fruits, vegetables, pulses, oilseeds - need bees for pollination. Because they are sensitive to their environment, bees are considered as bio-indicators, and a decline in their population is expected to have a dramatic impact on our biodiversity and food security. UTMTs model boosts the depleting bee population in project areas, encourages bee-friendly wild plants and discourages chemical farming. It has been observed that wild honey hunting practices, where bees are killed in the process of smoking and destroying the hive, have reduced around the project villages thereby contributing towards higher bee populations in the ecosystem. UTMTs work in Madhya Pradesh is concentrated around national parks, where they work with communities through partner organisations such as Taj Safaris in Bandhavgarh, Reni Pani Jungle Lodge near the Satpura Tiger Reserve and Reliance Foundation near the Pench National Park.

UTMTs beekeeping model has received recognition from respected institutions in the development sphere - a key highlight was when it won the World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2013, an award given to the most scalable rural development innovation, which helped to expand their operations in Madhya Pradesh. More recently in February 2015, they were selected for the Social Innovation Acceleration Programme of the Marico Innovation Foundation that identifies social enterprises with potential for large scale social impact and helps them scale up in a sustainable manner.

Over 3,000 farmers have been trained in beekeeping by UTMT in the three states since it was founded, apart from the addition of beekeeping to the livelihoods of women self-help groups from 2014. However, convincing farmers to adopt beekeeping is a challenge as most have never heard of bees being kept in boxes, are used to practicing honey hunting and are often sceptical of the pollination value of bees, until they experience yield increases first hand. Over time, UTMT members realised taking new trainees to old project areas on exposure visits where they interact with experienced beekeepers helps to motivate them. Numerous farmers now share anecdotes of how they have reduced or altogether eliminated pesticide usage on their crops, after taking up beekeeping. They understand the negative effect of chemicals on bees. In fact, they find that the incidence of pest infestation has reduced after keeping a bee-box.

“One of my most enduring memories is that of Somabhai Mura, a marginal farmer from Dandwal village in Valsad district of Gujarat. He had told us about how when he was a child, they would extract honey from hives by squeezing them and use the combs to make a very nutritious bhaji (side dish). Today, his village has close to 60 bee-boxes, where villagers understand the crucial role bees play as pollinators for their crops and most importantly, unsustainable extraction of honey has stopped," says Sujana Krishnamoorthy, Executive Director, UTMT.

At a session with trainers in a project village in Valsad, Sureshbhai Padvi spoke of his journey from disbelieving farmer to passionate beekeeper. When UTMT first came to the village in 2009, he whispered in his friends ear, “These people are crazy. Bees live in the forests, how can they be kept in a box? These people will fail and leave the village soon." Today, he owns 14 bee-boxes and spends much of his savings expanding them! It took him two years to independently manage his bee-box, he tells doubtful farmers, urging them to give it a try.

Author: Anirudh Nair, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, April 2015.

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