Sifelani Thonje a qualified secondary school teacher acquired the relevant skills as he grew up, being son to a seasoned bee keeper of his time, but he never thought he could one day follow the footsteps of his father.
Though a trained high school teacher who demonstrates passion in his career, developed interest in farming to supplement his income but devastating effects of climate change pushed him to try apiculture also and with relevant skills it wasn’t so adventurous. The results left him smiling and his good word to farmers is that they must stop weeping bitter tears of disappointment due to climate change but try bee-keeping.
Thonje’s advice to Zimbabwean farmers of today comes at the right time. Climate change has wrecked havoc in Zimbabwean agricultural sector since majority small scale farmers in the country do not have irrigation facilities yet rains have been very erratic and disappointing at times.
For most farmers using seasonal rains this season, the future is bleak. It rained so much in the initial part of the season that soil fertility was affected by leaching but even worse, the rains disappeared when they were needed most.
Such experiences like the foregoing encouraged Thonje to start bee farming. Recalling his journey towards his new career Thonje admits that he acquired a lot of skills and experience from his father, Thaulani, who was a bee keeping guru but initially he never thought of taking his path.
“My father,Thaulani Thonje was famed for beekeeping. Initially, I didn’t take beekeeping seriously but later realized that it was time I took it up as a business venture” Thonje said.
Thonje says he derived inspiration from his father who used to harvest drums of natural honey from his traditional bee hives as witnessed by the writer also. However, growing up, he was fancifully attracted to professional careers like teaching, medicine and Law.
“My father greatly inspired me yet when we were growing up, we dreamt of becoming professionals like teachers, doctors and lawyers not realizing that beekeeping was just like any other profession”
His dream came true: he rose to become a high school teacher with exceptional performance in Englsh and History but after enjoying all that came with it he realised that there was a lot more to desire and complemented his teaching career with farming and later with apiculture.
Thonje says his father was a notable bee-keeper who owned countless bee hives sparcely distributed along rivers of Musikavanhu constituency.
“My father had so many beehives, may be too many to count”, he says
He admitted that he could not be equated to his great father in bee keeping but with about 120 beehives he is a notable bee-keeper of today.
“As for me, I can’t say I have come anywhere near my father but I have around 120 beehives, all made from dried and old ‘mutsungunu’ logs, weathered by years that would have developed some openings in the middle”, he says.
Like his father raised him Thonje is also raising a son in bee keeping and closely works with him since he started his bee keeping project in 2019. He says they are making good profits from the investment and are contemplating expanding it and exploring new market niches.
“I started this in 2019 with my son , Washington. We have been able to get some buckets and we sell to both local and outside market. Yes, we have realized some income and we might want to expand both the market and business.”
Erratic weather conditions aggravated by climate change opened Thonje’s eyes to see why his father doubled as a bee farmer and crop producer.
Talking from experience, Thonje says rainfall patterns are now unpredictable due to climate change and so farmers must consider bee keeping since it is not very much affected by climate change and pays better with time.
“Climate change entails that rainfall patterns have become so unpredictable such that it’s wise to invest in beekeeping also. One good thing about beekeeping is that in the long run, it becomes cost effective”, he enthused.
He also says bees enhance crop productivity and so having bee hives close to one’s farm is advantageous to the farmer: “Farmers must embrace beekeeping alongside mainstream activities. Bees get nectar from plants and plants get cross pollinated in the process”, he recommended.
Being a teacher and community torchbearer, Thonje took the opportunity to advise farmers that besides having guaranteed returns even in bad seasons apiculture also fight climate change. He says by promoting pollination, bees fight deforestation and so climate change. He added that bee-keeping is a farming option that help us spare forests and fight climate change in the process since bee farmers do not clear but spare trees to mount bee-hives.
“Bees promote plant reproduction through facilitating pollination thereby fighting deforestation and climate change. Besides, the more bee farmers we have, the less forests we lose since bee-farmers do not clear tracts of land like crop producers but rather spare trees to mount bee-hives”, he says
Thonje says farmers must jealously guard against deforestation and climate change since it affects every farming business adding that though on a milder scale bee keeping is also affected. Talking from experience, he says deforestation has seen him struggling on where to mount his bee hives.
“Deforestation has had a devastating effect on the enterprise. I recall that we were spoiled for where to mount our beehives in the late seventies right into the nineties. Today, there are no forests let alone trees to talk about”, he retorted.
He said, unlike what his father used to do he was compelled to cluster his bee hives in his gum plantation because there are no trees, forcing his bees to compete for nectar in one place: “I had to pitch all my beehives in one area, my Gumtree plantation. One needs good forests to have this enterprise”, he said.
He went on to say climate change also affects bee keeping in the sense that rivers dry up and yet bees need water to produce honey.
“Also, there must be reliable water sources nearby, say less than a kilometer from the beehives. I always wondered why my father always had his beehives along river banks, today, it makes so much sense to me”
He appealed to Zimbabwean Environmental Management Agency (EMA) to step up efforts to conserve trees and natural sources of water as a way of boosting honey production in this age where crop production is saddled by climate change: “EMA must put in place strict measures to protect and conserve our trees and rivers/ water sources”.
Thonje’s recommendation to EMA echoes views of Zimbabwean Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Mangaliso Ndlovu who reportedly said EMA Act, which is over 20 years old needs to be reviewed to catch up with modern environmental management trends. Ndlovu added that her ministry was actually in the process of reviewing the ACT.
Coming to how those interested must prepare themselves, Thonje says like any other business venture bee keeping requires financial input and his own growth in the business has been slowed by financial limitations. He says it is expensive to buy bee hives and furnish them with bee colonies.
“Just like any other business ventures, beekeeping is not a stroll in the park. With a beehive going for 20US, it becomes very difficult to venture in that business. Also, good capital is needed to have the beehives colonised”.
Thonje added that another challenge he is facing is that of thieves who are stealing his produce. He says during the time of his father stealing honey was a taboo that could result in mysterious dearth. He bemoans that the situation has changed and thieves steal at will.
“Another challenge we are facing is that there are now so many thieves. In those days honey was not stolen as one could die mysteriously but now they no longer fear anything”, he says.