Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|September 1, 2022|12 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

"Bee ready for a sweet dance of joy."

If nothing else, lockdown has taught people to be resourceful. Just ask Chris Oosthuizen, who saw a buzzing business of sweet reward through the smoke and flames of a campfire.

It was a cool February evening and a good night for a campfire on the Willowdale Farm in the heart of Stanford, in South Africa’s Western Cape. Entrepreneur Chris Oosthuizen, stared into the flickering flames bored, angry, and frustrated.  This was the Covid-19 lockdown and Oosthuizen was fed up with being stuck at home.

By day he was supposed to be the head of Sales, Marketing and Product at Stor-Age Property REIT, one of Africa’s largest self-storage operators. Covid-19 meant day and night he was sitting around doing nothing.

At least he was warm by the campfire and the conversation was buzzing.

“I was with my mate Karim Kamwendo, who has been working for our family for 15 years, he was renting a little cottage not far from us. He was telling me about how much money you could make off bees. He started giving me the numbers and I didn’t like what I was hearing.”

Oosthuizen was shocked to find out that the world of beekeeping wasn’t as sustainable and kind as he thought.

“After the ninth hour I was sitting straight and realising once again how human beings are making money off creatures in the way that they shouldn’t be doing it,” said Oosthuizen.

The news by the campfire wasn’t good: global bee populations in decline through climate change; loss of habitat because of deforestation and farming; even the maiming of bees to make them docile and produce more honey.

When he heard of commercial pollination practices, Oosthuizen was furious. Here, according to Oosthuizen, companies make millions shipping hives of overworked bees thousands of miles across the American countryside because there are not enough wild populations left to do the job.

“We’ve taken away all the natural places where bees live and everything they can feed off, and just in case it wasn’t enough that we’ve made them homeless, and made them hungry, and we decided to spray a myriad of insecticides over that same space. But then we realise we need to bring the bees back. We load them onto a truck, in an environment where they have to be thermoregulated and drive them thousands of miles across the country to pollinate our farms..It’s not a sustainable product,” says Oosthuizen.

One single bee colony pollinates 300 million flowers each day, but more importantly we rely on them to pollinate our fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Seventy out of the top 100 crops that humans consume, which supplies up to 90% of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees. A bee needs to visit one million flowers from 50,000 bee flights to make just 1 kilogram of honey.

With this in mind, Oosthuizen decided he wanted to make a difference as an entrepreneur.

The next day before the ashes were cooled, Oosthuizen was on the phone. He’d never even seen the inside of a bee hive but he ordered a hundred of them. In the middle of a lockdown he contracted a friend who has just their job in a clothing factory to make them a beekeeping suit.

Oosthuizen had a plan. While the hives were being manufactured, he, along with his colleague Kamwendo, watched hours upon hours of beekeeping tutorials on YouTube.

By the time the hives arrived, three weeks later, they were ready.

“We made a small little lure (a mixture of lemon grass and beeswax) and put our box in the right place under some eucalyptus trees. Three days later a swarm had moved in. You’ve never seen two men dance like that before,” he says.

This was the birth of Honeybee Heroes – a sustainable business that lets bees make honey in their own time.

“We’re getting stung a helluva lot less than we were at the beginning of last year. Which is fine.”

Oosthuizen eases the honey from the hives in bee time.

We have taken away all the natural places where bees live and everything they can feed off, and just in case it was not enough that we've made them homeless, and made them hungry, and we decided to spray a myriad of insecticides over that same space

Chris Oosthuizen, founder Honeybee Heroes

A honeybee sanctuary – and education centre – in the heart of the Overberg.

“Over time we’ve found that some of the hives are more active than others. Some really work hard, while others are content to just be. We’re okay with that.”

According to him, attracting bees is a lot easier than you would think. South Africa is in the  fortunate position where 60-70% of its bees are still feral, says Oosthuizen. A stark contrast to some other countries in the world there are few feral bees left, or none at all.

This makes it a lot easier for Honeybee Heroes for wandering bees to fill up their hives. Eight months on from the campfire chat with Kamwendo the business has 50 hives strung across the Stanford fynbos. Excuse us, but the business is buzzing.

“The goal is by the end of the year to have 1,000 hives. My long term goal is to see 20,000 bee hives all starting from below the Orange River and stretching from the West part of Cape Town all the way through to the Eastern Cape.”

Along with letting the bees make honey as they please, Oosthuizen wants neighbours also to invest in their own micro-apiaries – a cheap way for entrepreneurs to get a start in the beekeeping business.

“Beekeeping is a phenomenal way, and a sustainable way, to double and treble income for those living on the breadline. If you look at individuals that are farm workers, they’re earning R4,500 a month,” said Oosthuizen.

Once the hives are set up, Oosthuizen wants to extract the honey on site through extraction units on the back of a bakkie and pay the beekeepers as he goes.

If there is any chance of these micro-apiaries working South Africans are going to need to fork out a lot more for their honey. This is because the market is flooded with cheap honey brought in from places like China

“The stuff that comes from China, a lot of it is blended with sugar syrups with a variety of uncontrolled products. The bees themselves have been raised on sugar so the bees themselves are making honey off an artificial feeding cycle,” says Oosthuizen.

The world honey market is reckoned to be worth $12 billion – that’s as much money as the World Bank gave to Africa for vaccination programmes . Of this honey market, China holds 24%. The country produces four hundred and forty four thousand tonnes of honey in 2019 alone.

Back in Africa, research at Norton Rose Fulbright (NRT) found Ethiopia to be the largest African producer of honey turning out approximately 45,300 tonnes annually – worth an estimated $100 million, according to the BBC. Tanzania is the second largest (8,000 tonnes annually), and Kenya ranks third, followed by Uganda and then Rwanda, with just 4,000 tonnes a year.

Lower down the list, is South Africa, which brings in R3.2 billion ($226 million) in average annual turnover from 2,000 tonnes of honey. Ironically, China sells more than twice that amount in South Africa.

It’s a tough time for Oosthuizen – a new man at the beehive – to launch himself as an entrepreneur with a product that’s far from cheap. Real honey costs money, says Oosthuizen. Shoppers should be prepared to pay about four times the price of cheap imports – the premium price of purity.

“The price of honey is cheap. It’s not a sustainable small business for a honeybee guy.

The same can be said for the honey industry. We need to shift the market of honey. One so that people can understand the value of honey, that actually goes into the production of the honey from a bee perspective,” he said.

Bee enthusiasts and environmentalists can also adopt a beehive. This helps cover the costs of the hive’s installation and lowers the cost of the honey to make it more competitive.

“The Honeybee Hero project isn’t just about the bees. It’s about making people conscious of the purchasing decisions we make. We need to ask where our food is sourced and why are we eating it. The bees are an early warning sign for us about what we are doing wrong. We need to make the right decisions.”

A sweet path for an entrepreneur who is not afraid of getting stung.

 Images: https://www.honeybeeheroes.com/   

Photo credit: Jay Caboz