For the past five months, I have been working for an organization called Organic World and Fair future (OWF), an eco-social fair-trade company that focuses on pro-poor value chain development of organic products in Nepal. Which is why OWF markets organic chiuri and mustard honey produced by beekeepers in the mountainous regions of Nepal. The value chain is as follows: beekeeper > processor > OWF packaging and marketing > OWF retail store, farmers’ market, and recently the local supermarkets.

             Honey displayed at the supermarket, Big Mart, Kathmandu, Nepal.

The challenges I have seen at OWF, arising from scaling fair-trade honey production to a wider national and international market, inspired me to explore the experience of other Nepali honey producers without the support of OWF. I discovered that there are multiple constraints to selling honey in Nepal.

 Beekeeping in Nepal
Beekeeping, the practice of managing and breeding bees to harvest honey, goes back thousands of years in Nepal. The tradition started with the four indigenous honeybee species, mainly for pollination of crops and production of household items. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Italian Apis mellifera in 1990 that the commercial production of honey began. Currently, the indigenous Apiscerana and Apis mellifera are used for commercial production.

Nowadays, the honey sector is increasingly recognized as a market for numerous employment opportunities as well as gender-inclusive activity, where women also participate in the honey harvesting and collecting process. However, with over 500,000 farmers involved in beekeeping, only 5,000 of them are commercial beekeepers. Furthermore, according to Statistics Nepal, in the year 2015-16, Nepal had 232,000 beehives and produced only 3,500 metric tons of honey, despite having the potential to produce 10,000 tonnes annually. This shortage in honey production is caused by constraints such as productivity, food and safety regulations, and international honey export barriers in Nepal.

Honey Production Productivity
Honey producers usually possess basic skills in beekeeping, developed through a one-time technical training of typically 3- 7 days. Many beekeepers believe they could increase their productivity for commercial use and that they, along with farmers, need proper skill development training and technical assistance (i.e., bee colony management, crop pollination, etc.).
Many Nepali farmers presumed the bees damaged and stole the nutrients from the crops, thus, farmers started using strong pesticides to keep bees away. Bees then feed on these crops and die which not only hinders the honey production but also affects food production and livelihood of people in the mountainous areas since bees are known as essential pollinators.

Moreover, the Beekeeper Development Section estimated that 39,168 colonies of bees at traditional hives are reared by farmers in Mude and Khape, while 60,000 colonies are raised in modern hives. According to my supervisor, the Chairman of OWF and a reputable member of the organic agriculture community in Nepal, Umesh Lama, OWF beekeepers use traditional methods and equipment so they cannot move their hives, unlike modernized beekeepers who relocate their hives all year round in search of better weather conditions for higher honey production. Umesh Lama said that as a result, modern beekeepers are able to produce up to 200 kilograms annually, as compared to the 50 kilograms produced by the traditional beekeeper in the one harvest during autumn and spring. Productivity gains from modern methods reflect how important mobility and access to technology is for honey production. However, a sizeable amount of beekeeping in Nepal is still confined to traditional methods of beekeeping, which leads to only a seasonal production of honey and reduction and sales volume of OWF and other honey producers.

Food and Safety Regulations
In 2015, a new constitution was adopted due to Nepal’s past political instability. Consequently, the decentralization process is still ongoing, and numerous uncertainties are outstanding regarding food safety in Nepal. Currently, the government of Nepal is working with its adoption of Quality Management System QMS, EMS, ISO/IEC 17025:2005, ISO 22000:2005 and the Hazard Control Critical Point (HCCP) as the National Food Control Standards. However, these standards are not obligatory for all food producers, processors, and traders in Nepal.
Such policies and deficiencies exhibit how Nepali beekeepers remain unaware of the importance of good beekeeping practices and continue to produce low quality honey, preventing them from accessing supermarket value chains and selling honey in sufficient/larger quantity.

International Honey Export Barriers 
Since 2008, Nepal is banned from exporting any animal-based products to the EU because of quality requirements and residue issues. Furthermore, the global standards used in the importing and exporting of honey are contained in the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of international standards relating to foods, food production, and food safety. Both the Codex Alimentarius and the EU Residual Monitoring Plan (RMP) strictly limit residues in honey and require a residue monitoring system in exporting countries throughout the production, collection, and processing of the honey.
Moreover, these restrictions and regulations cause severe hinderances in the monitoring and implementation of the RMP, such as laboratory testing and monitoring facilities which prevent local honey producers from legally proving they meet the international export standards. Exporting honey is a problem due to a lack of accredited laboratories to check its standards.

What can be learned from the success of large-scale commercial honey producers like OWF to obtaining access to the national market?

OWF’s journey into the national market indicates the adherence to strict standards required by the expansion of the market. Factors that gave producers like OWF an advantage over small-scale honey producers in accessing the market:

– OWFs reliable production and ensured consistency
– OWFs organic certification and strict standards (i.e., pollination fields only within two meters of hives)
– OWFs maintained transparency and fair trade practices among all actors (i.e., clarity in wages, retail channels, etc. to  value chain members)
– OWFs traceability, the honey production value chain is tracked and monitored by OWF which grants OWF honey credibility for market access.

Lastly, all honey producers face challenges in accessing the market, however, there is no attention given to the production process. Is there a solution to producing honey sustainably? What is sustainability when it comes to honey production?