02/18/2014 05:56 EST | Updated 04/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Bees Gave This Ethiopian Youth Co-Op a Chance to Thrive

Tezana Kassa was once afraid of bees. Strange, I thought, for someone whose livelihood is now so wrapped up in a co-operative honey bee apiary he and 25 other youth began just weeks ago here in the parched Amhara region of northern Ethiopia.

They gather around my head in increasing numbers as I inch ever closer to the hive's narrow opening. I try not to think about the thousands more which must be stirring to life in the neighbouring hives just beyond my peripheral vision. I'm consumed by a single thought: "Where will I run?"

My colleague, Innocent Muhereza, was insistent during the morning drive from Bahir Dar that we arrive before the honey bees become "anxious." We are late and I'm finding it hard to repress the grisly image he painted of those six dead goats, victims of an angry swarm of "anxious" bees while in Innocent's care as a young boy on his family farm in Uganda.

Tezana Kassa was once afraid of bees. Strange, I thought, for someone whose livelihood is now so wrapped up in a co-operative honey bee apiary he and 25 other youth began just weeks ago here in the parched Amhara region of northern Ethiopia. "Now I'm confident," says the 25-year-old. "I've been trained in honey production and I understand the value of bees to our ecosystem, and to our livelihoods and nutrition." Tezana is such a convert he recently bought two of his own traditional beehives which he tends at his parent's home where he lives.

Tezana Kassa

"During training we learned that if you protect the forest, the honey production will be good," he explains. "Honey for forests and forests for honey, you can't separate them."

Tezana says he faced many life challenges before joining the group. "Young people are leaving this area because there are no jobs to be had. We want to stay here. We love our area. We have no profits yet, but I have learned to be very confident and I'm happy because this is my hope, to combat desertification. Simply having this in my village where my young friends are working together is worth all the time and effort."

My determination to get a close-up shot of a honey bee wanes as I see more and more gathering around the netting protecting my face. I decide to visit the training now underway by a nearby tree. Kindu Nigat, a bee expert from the agricultural office is demonstrating how to assemble and care for the bright yellow beehives.

This apiary includes 52 modern beehives and 42 traditional hives. Mr. Nigat says the group can harvest 30kg from traditional conical stick and mud beehives and double that amount from three harvests per year with the modern square shaped hives made of lumber. "Traditional hives are cheaper and use local materials so we can build them ourselves," he says. "The modern hives are more expensive but they yield so much more honey."

Under the tree I meet Wubetu Yeshanew, 21, who joined the group five months ago. He says the co-op, which is part of CCA's Climate Resilience and Co-operatives project in Ethiopia, has opened up a new way of life for young people. "We are very poor, so fruit and vegetable production, animal fattening and bee keeping is changing our lives. We are protecting this forest patch and we hope to continue our environmental protection after the project ends."

The project has provided a revolving loan fund to help local credit unions offer loans for individuals and groups to kick start small businesses. Each member of the honeybee production co-op has signed for an equal share of the group loan they received from the Wareta Zuria Credit Union based on their business plan. In effect they are co-guaranteeing each other's share. It must be repaid in two years at 5 per cent interest per year.

"We bought wax, beehives, fencing, and protective clothing and receive free technical training from the government agricultural office as well as from project staff. The community donated the land for our apiary."

Group members contribute their labour, which includes taking shifts guarding the apiary from night predators.

Canadian Co-operative Association Program Manager Innocent Muhereza says co-operatives like this play a key role in Ethiopia helping to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers affected by climate change. They are playing a part in production, marketing and financial services.

"Most farmers here do not have access to improved seeds, training, farm inputs, savings and credit services, storage facilities and marketing resources. CCA's project is enabling co-operatives to address these needs giving farmers the tools they need in order to adapt to climate change and even mitigate, or lessen the effects of climate change on their lives."

"We cannot live off this activity alone," says Wubetu, "but we are member owners of our own business. We have trained on apiculture, how to manage hives and make honey. Flowers are vital to the survival of bees. I want us to propagate more flowers for the honeybees because our own survival depends on protecting our environment. The weather and rains are changing, the soil is degrading at an increasing rate and so are our crops. I now associate the forest and flowers with the production of honey and our survival."

Their first of two semi-annual harvests will be in January. So far the bees are healthy and happy, but they are fighting pests like ants and butterflies.

Wubetu says the disappearance of some plant species in the area stresses the bee population. "Farmers love bees," he says with a smile. "The community participates in protecting the forests and land. We are their children. We are all involved in this."

Huluagerish Muche, 20, removes her protective headwear and I see that she is one of just four women in the group. "I am illiterate," she says, "too poor to go to school. This is a very big opportunity for me to learn and earn an income. Without this group I would be a farm labourer, herding animals."

Divorced and without education, Huluagerish sees beekeeping as a healthier, safer alternative to farm labour.

Removing my protective gear and packing up to leave, I realize I have not taken photos of Huluagerish, Wubetu and Tezana. In haste we gather by the hives and as they pose for me it occurs to me I am no longer protected. Our shots in hand, I leave the hives with a new appreciation for these young people. Like the honeybees, they are determined to stay and make a go of it on this remote patch of hardened earth. Their partnership with bees has somehow made both parties less anxious. And that's a good thing.

David Shanks is Manager of Publications and Media Relations with the Canadian Co-operative Association. This item appeared in the most recent issue of International Development Digest. See the entire issue, or subscribe here.