Okello is tasting the sweet money from honey

WHEN I made an appointment with Michael Okello, Gulu district’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 Okello’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 Okello’s keen interest in bees which dates back to his childhood.

How Okello started

"I started keeping bees with one locally made beehivewhen I was 13 years old. As a child, I wouldsee our mother buying honey from other peopleand I felt that this money could be used to buyother things. That is how I came up with the idea ofkeeping bees,” Okello recalls. Later, he acquired fivemore local bee hives at sh25,000 to sh30,000 each."From the five hives I harvested three buckets ofhoney which I sold at sh500 per half-litre plasticcup and I got sh15,000 which I added to what Ihad already saved to buy more hives and books onbeekeeping,” Okello adds."Every year I would buy more beehives andcurrently, I have 150 hives of both local and modernKenya Top Bar (KTB) type. My production has alsogone up from five buckets to 2,500kgs per harvest,”he reveals.Inspired by the progress he has made in a shorttime, Okello decided to join Nyabea AgriculturalCollege in Masindi to study a certificate course inbee keeping and later did a diploma in bee keepingat Kito Agricultural Training School in Kenya.

Earning from bees

Okello first processes and packs the honey beforesupplying it to supermarkets and grocery shopsin Gulu town. A kilograme of unprocessed honeycosts sh8,000, while the processed one goes forsh10,000."My customers have different needs; some wanttheir honey processed, while others prefer it incrude form. To avoid losing customers, we offerboth options,” he explains.According to Okello, everything produced by beescan be turned into cash. The unprocessed combis on high demand. For instance, from the comb,Okello makes wax, honey wine, wall hangings andsoap. A Kilograme of wax sells at sh40,000"Recently a group of white people from Germanycame and bought 68kg of wax from my shop. Theywanted more than 100kg, but I could not raisethem,” recalls Okello.Besides selling honey and other bee productssuch as honey wine (mead) and propolis, Okelloalso makes beehives and processing equipment.While most farmers harvest honey twice a year,Okello harvests four a times year. He attributes hishigher harvests to proper apiary maintenance.Okello packs his honey in half-Kilogramecontainers which he sells at sh5,000 each.He hopes to earn about sh12.5m from the2,500kg of honey he harvested in March this year."I earn between sh17m to sh18m from sellinghoney alone annually,” Okello reveals.A Kilograme of beeswax used to make candleand soap sells at sh4,000, while a small bottle ofpropolis, used to treat wounds, cuts, cough andother diseases, sells at sh5,000. He sells eachcandle at sh500 and a cup of sweet honey wine atsh500.Last year, Okello was contracted by NationalAgricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) to supplysix sub-counties in Gulu and Amuru districts withKTB beehives at sh80,000 each. He also supplied100 KTB hives to Watoto Church and has gotan order from Wildlife Conservation Society inKampala to supply them with 368 beehives. He hasalso got several orders from different organisationsand individuals.Okello, who is also the regional coordinator ofThe Uganda National Agricultural DevelopmentOrganisation (TUNADO), carries out trainingunder a NAADS programe and features regularlyon the local radios.

Wide-spread markets

Okello sells his packed honey to supermarketswithin Gulu town and the neighbouring districts ofLira, Kitgum, Pader, Arua and Amuru.He also sells beehives to individuals, as wellas non-governmental organisations and districtinstitutions. A number of customers drive threekilometres from Gulu town to Okello’s shop atKoro centre on Gulu-Kampala highway to buyhoney and other honey products.

Achievements

Using money from honey, Okello hasdiversified into fruit growing. He hasan orchard of grafted oranges andmangoes, plus a forest of pine treeswhich he planted on 180 hectares ofland in Gulu.He has also fenced off part ofthe land for cattle keeping and hasplanted 15,000 pawpaw seedlingswith plans of supplying paw paws toGulu and the neighbouring districtswhere they are on high demand.The enterprising beekeeper is alsobuilding a nine-room residentialhouse in his ancestral village ofObwola in Koro sub-county in Guludistrict where the Lords ResistanceArmy rebels displaced them manyyears ago.