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Bees become big business

Selvaraj started her bee keeping business in 2006 (© R.S. Swamiappan/Krishi Vigyan Kendra)
Selvaraj started her bee keeping business in 2006
© R.S. Swamiappan/Krishi Vigyan Kendra

Josephine Selvaraj has a motto - 'start small and think big'. When she started her bee keeping business in 2006, she had ten beehives on her father's farm in Tamil Nadu, southern India, and earned around US$50 per month from honey sales. But through careful market research and innovation she has become a highly successful entrepreneur, now producing up to half a tonne of honey each month, worth over US$1,600.

Tshepiso Marumo's beekeeping career also had humble beginnings. Currently studying a marketing degree, the 26 year old from southern Botswana started with just three bee colonies in her backyard. Her company now employs 12 young people and supplies products to supermarkets, alternative health clinics and other retailers around the country. Beekeeping was not, however, her first choice of career.

"When I was growing up, I wanted to be a mining engineer,' Marumo says. "One day when I was house-cleaning at home I found an article about bees. I was inspired by these creatures and their science, but threw the article away after some time." Some years later, however, she remembered the article while browsing on the internet, and started to research bees in more depth. "I was impressed by what I saw, and decided I would do beekeeping as an alternative source of income for my family. I went to the Ministry of Agriculture for more information, and fortunately they offered me a course. I also registered for business training courses."

Selvaraj's journey with bees also began with training, when she attended a three-day course on beekeeping organised by Krishi Vigyan Kendra (a government-funded agricultural science centre), in Madurai. She learned about selection and maintenance of beehives, rearing of honey bee colonies, and extraction of honey, which gave her the confidence to begin her operation with ten hives. Over the next six months she increased her skills through further vocational training at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, thereby increasing production of both honey and money. In time, she was able to expand to 200 beehives on a 0.8 hectare site, marketing under the brand name 'Vibis Honey' and earning extra income by selling bee-keeping equipment.

Thinking big

Zone 4 Life produces lip balm and candles, as well as many honey products (© Tshepiso Marumo)
Zone 4 Life produces lip balm and candles, as well as many honey products
© Tshepiso Marumo

To be competitive, however, Selvaraj knew that Vibis Honey needed an edge over its rivals. She decided to investigate production of single flower honeys, and carried out a survey throughout southern India to assess the plants and flowering seasons for each region. In order to produce organic honey, she also searched for areas where crops were grown without use of chemicals. Having collected information on the medicinal properties of honey, she began producing a number of medicinally valued products: thulasi honey for colds, jamoon honey for diabetics, and others such as neem, ginger, garlic and fig honeys. Employing 40 staff in its ISO certified processing honey unit, Vibis now exports honey to Sri Lanka and Singapore, and makes a wide range of value added products, including beeswax, bee venom, royal jelly and propolis.

Like Selvaraj, Marumo also had impressive ambitions for her business, but needed great determination to achieve them. Her aim was to build a leading company in conservation of bee species and production of honey, while also creating employment for young people and women and contributing to poverty alleviation. Getting funds to achieve her dream was the first challenge. "I had an idea, but no funds or land," she recalls. She began by saving money from her student allowance, took short term jobs with an insurance company and a bank, and - after 37 applications - secured a job at the Botswana Telecom Company. Within two years she resigned, with enough capital to begin work on her beekeeping project.

In 2011, she created the company Zone 4 Life, producing honey products, lip balm and candles and buying honey from small-scale beekeepers. In the same year, the company secured three commercial beekeeping plots and gained expansion funds from the Ministry of Youth, plus a grant and 12 months' mentorship through the 'Kick Start' competition. Since then, Marumo's business has attracted recognition in several national youth expos and was selected to represent Botswana at an Agri Youth Business forum in Senegal.

Sharing the lessons

Beyond her commercial success, Marumo has also been asked to share her experience on youth and gender issues. Winning first prize at a national women's expo, she was invited to participate in gender training and share her success story at a 'women and youth' side event, hosted by FARA and the government of Ghana. She was also invited to participate in a Policy and Youth in Agriculture session, hosted by FANRPAN and the government of Lesotho.

Selvaraj has become a master trainer (© R.S. Swamiappan/Krishi Vigyan Kendra)
Selvaraj has become a master trainer
© R.S. Swamiappan/Krishi Vigyan Kendra

"It has not been an easy ride," she says. "It has been a rollercoaster that has tested my capability and strength. Only passion has taught me to be patient, disciplined, hard-working and to focus on my beekeeping project. I believe that as young people, we need role models that can motivate others to take agriculture as a career and a business."

Selvaraj would agree. She has now become a master trainer, and trained over 50,000 people in Tamil Nadu. Three hundred of these have become entrepreneurs, each employing a further three to five people. She has also helped to establish apiaries in 32 farms in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and is currently developing Honey Park - a visitor centre with flower gardens, beekeeping equipment and honey products, to raise awareness of the potential of beekeeping and inspire more successful entrepreneurs.

With contributions from: S Kamalsundari, C Chelviramessh, G. Srinivasan, C. Ravindran, NS Venkataraman and T Marumo

Date published: September 2013


Have your say

Truly incredible! I would like to hear from both Ms Josphine... (posted by: lizzie)

Two incredible success stories! The attitude, passion and st... (posted by: Alex Damaliphetsa)


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