By Patience Aber and Chris Ocowum
My Way: Michael Okello
A part from reaping from honey, Okello also makes wax, bee hives and gives professional counsel
When I made an appointment with Michael Okello, Gulu districtâ€™s most successful beekeeper, I expected someone dressed in tattered clothes and gumboots.
To my surprise, I found Okello seated in a saloon car parked outside one of his honey outlets near Koro sub-county headquarters waiting to drive me to his bee farm.
A former Grade III teacher, Okello is using training skills carried over from his old profession, to demonstrate how one can make money from bees. His success shows that when done the right way, bee farming can be better paying than many white collar jobs.
The veteran beekeeper has no kind words for the current education system which prepares students for white collar jobs and portrays farming as a career for failures.
The 38-year-old farmer quit teaching in 2005 to start keeping bees. Many people questioned Okelloâ€™s decision to abandon a safe teaching job for an uncertain future as a beekeeper. But Okello had made up his mind and nothing would deter him. What his detractors were not aware of was Okelloâ€™s keen interest in bees which dates back to his childhood.
How Okello started
â€œI started keeping bees with one locally made bee-hive when I was 13 years old. As a child, I would see our mother buying honey from other people and I felt that this money could be used to buy other things. That is how I came up with the idea of keeping bees,â€ Okello recalls. Later, he acquired five more local bee hives at sh25,000 to sh30,000 each.
â€œFrom the five hives I harvested three buckets of honey which I sold at sh500 per half-litre plastic cup and I got sh15,000 which I added to what I had already saved to buy more hives and books on beekeeping,â€ Okello adds.
â€œEvery year I would buy more beehives and currently, I have 150 hives of both local and modern Kenya Top Bar (KTB) type. My production has also gone up from five buckets to 2,500kgs per harvest,â€ he reveals.
Inspired by the progress he has made in a short time, Okello decided to join Nyabea Agricultural College in Masindi to study a certificate course in bee keeping and later did a diploma in bee keeping at Kito Agricultural Training School in Kenya.
Earning from bees
Okello first processes and packs the honey before supplying it to supermarkets and grocery shops in Gulu town. A kilograme of unprocessed honey costs sh8,000, while the processed one goes for sh10,000.
â€œMy customers have different needs; some want their honey processed, while others prefer it in crude form. To avoid losing customers, we offer both options,â€ he explains.
According to Okello, everything produced by bees can be turned into cash. The unprocessed comb is on high demand. For instance, from the comb, Okello makes wax, honey wine, wall hangings and soap. A Kilograme of wax sells at sh40,000
â€œRecently a group of white people from Germany came and bought 68kg of wax from my shop. They wanted more than 100kg, but I could not raise them,â€ recalls Okello.
Besides selling honey and other bee products such as honey wine (mead) and propolis, Okello also makes beehives and processing equipment.
While most farmers harvest honey twice a year, Okello harvests four a times year. He attributes his higher harvests to proper apiary maintenance.
Okello packs his honey in half-Kilograme containers which he sells at sh5,000 each.
He hopes to earn about sh12.5m from the 2,500kg of honey he harvested in March this year.
â€œI earn between sh17m to sh18m from selling honey alone annually,â€ Okello reveals.
A Kilograme of beeswax used to make candle and soap sells at sh4,000, while a small bottle of propolis, used to treat wounds, cuts, cough and other diseases, sells at sh5,000. He sells each candle at sh500 and a cup of sweet honey wine at sh500.
Last year, Okello was contracted by National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) to supply six sub-counties in Gulu and Amuru districts with KTB beehives at sh80,000 each. He also supplied 100 KTB hives to Watoto Church and has got an order from Wildlife Conservation Society in Kampala to supply them with 368 beehives. He has also got several orders from different organisations and individuals.
Okello, who is also the regional coordinator of The Uganda National Agricultural Development Organisation (TUNADO), carries out training under a NAADS programe and features regularly on the local radios.
Okello sells his packed honey to supermarkets within Gulu town and the neighbouring districts of Lira, Kitgum, Pader, Arua and Amuru.
He also sells beehives to individuals, as well as non-governmental organisations and district institutions. A number of customers drive three kilometres from Gulu town to Okelloâ€™s shop at Koro centre on Gulu-Kampala highway to buy honey and other honey products.
Using money from honey, Okello has diversified into fruit growing. He has an orchard of grafted oranges and mangoes, plus a forest of pine trees which he planted on 180 hectares of land in Gulu.
He has also fenced off part of the land for cattle keeping and has planted 15,000 pawpaw seedlings with plans of supplying paw paws to Gulu and the neighbouring districts where they are on high demand.
The enterprising beekeeper is also building a nine-room residential house in his ancestral village of Obwola in Koro sub-county in Gulu district where the Lords Resistance Army rebels displaced them many years ago.
Weather changes always have drastic effects on honey output. The bees cannot work a lot when there is too much rain or too much heat.
With the demand for honey going up everyday, thieves are becoming another challenge. One night, thieves raided Okelloâ€™s apiary and harvested honey from 50 hives.
Malicious people, domestic animals like cows and wild animals pose another challenge as they destroy the hives.
Lack of specialised equipment for honey harvesting, processing and packaging is affecting the quality of Okelloâ€™s products.
Bush fires are another threat to Okelloâ€™s various farming enterprises. Last year, Okello lost two acres of his seven-year-old pine to fire started by edible rat hunters.
The recent long drought destroyed some of Okelloâ€™s young pine and orange trees. To save them, he had to hire people to water and mulch them.
Caring for bees
Okello advises bee keepers to handle bees gently and avoid using fire and other crude methods to drive them out of their hives when harvesting honey.
â€œYou should never give the bees the impression that you are fighting them because they will become aggressive and sting everyone around,â€ he tips.
The veteran bee keeper encourages his colleagues to feed the bees when necessary and visit them frequently so that they get familiar with each other.
According to Okello, if you take good care of your bees, they will reward you with a bumper honey harvest.
For instance, during the first two weeks of a swarm of bees colonising one of his hives, Okello has to ensure there is a steady supply of a mixture of water, sugar, cassava or maize flour for the bees to feed on until the honey flow begins. The feeds are put in a shallow container and placed under the hive.
The feeder can only be removed after honey flow starts or when the flowers, trees, or bushes in the area where the hive is sited start to bloom to provide the bees with the nectar out of which they make honey.
â€˜â€˜It is important to keep checking the hive to find out whether honey is flowing. One of the signs that it is flowing, is when both the queen and the worker bees have honey on their body,â€™â€™ he shares the tricks of his trade.
To attract bees into a new hive, Okello smokes the interior of the hive using burnt honey comb, propolis or wax.
He also has to carry out regular inspection on the hives, to ensure that there are enough bees inside to keep the queen warm. This is important since the queen has a life span of only two to three years.
In addition, Okello has to ensure that the hive is protected from strong winds and exposed to the sun for warmth especially if the hive is in a cold area.
One advantage a bee keeper enjoys over other farming enterprises, from Okelloâ€™s experience, is that bee keeping is not time consuming.
â€œYou only need to ensure that the area around the apiary is clean to scare off predators like snakes and insects that could invade the hive,â€™â€™ he says.
Okello wants to start a training centre for bee keeping and other agricultural activities, secure a pick-up truck to help in transporting his honey and other farm products to the markets.
He also hopes to expand his farm and start employing youth on the farm and ensure that his children study up to university.