Ghana Life: Beekeeping in the Tropics

Kwame Mainu and his English friend, Tom Arthur, are travelling back to Kumasi in July 1986 from Kwame’s mother’s hometown, Wenchi, in Brong-Ahafo Region. They have with them Kwame’s half-sister, Adjoa, who is going to Kumasi to buy shoes to sell in her kiosk on Wenchi High Street. On the way they plan to visit Sunyani, the capital of Brong-Ahafo Region and the home of Ghana’s biggest beekeeper with a thriving export market over the nearby border with Cote d’Ivoire. It was Tom’s opportunity to learn about the promise of tropical beekeeping as a widespread cottage industry and potentially a major employer in deprived rural areas of Ghana.

Kwame told Tom about Kwesi Ansah, an oil palm farmer who had learned beekeeping from the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, and was now Ghana’s largest honey producer with more than 300 beehives. Kwesi had organised a group of local people to lobby the regional administration to make all necessary preparations for the coming of the ITTU. Kwame had invited Kwesi to have lunch with them at a restaurant in Sunyani, but first they would be able to visit Kwesi at his mini industrial complex near the market.

They found Kwesi at his workplace. His bald head reflecting the morning sun was outshone by his broad smile and warm greeting. Tom sensed at once that here was a man of outstanding ability, a natural leader. He was eager to show the visitors all he had accomplished in the short time since he had made contact with the TCC. “I started with beekeeping,” he began, “then I decided to make my own beehives and set up a woodworking shop. Now I supply beehives to my neighbours in Brong-Ahafo Region and I also train them in beekeeping at my apiary and help them in any way I can to get started. At the TCC in Kumasi I also saw some machines for milling corn and making gari from cassava so I brought some of these machines here to demonstrate these activities and sell the services. My main business was growing oil palms so I got presses and boiling tanks from the TCC to produce my own palm oil. Now I have plans to buy a soap plant and use the palm oil to produce soap.”

Tom marvelled at this entrepreneurial zeal. This one man had transferred several significant rural industrial technologies from Kumasi to Sunyani, some 130 kilometres, provided important new services for the community and created work for numerous people. With such people scattered about the country the ITTU programme could not fail in its quest to generate grassroots industries in all the regions. Tom was impressed by the fact that local progressive entrepreneurs like Kwesi Ansah in Sunyani and Alhajji Issah Masters in Tamale had been drawn into the programme and persuaded to support the introduction of the ITTU in their region. It was clear that these people were convinced that the University of Science and Technology could provide direct help to grassroots industries in their locality.

Kwesi Ansah joined them in the Land Rover to visit his apiary in the oil palm plantation. They drove off in a north-westerly direction towards Bechem on the road to the border with Cote d’Ivoire. Near Nsuatre, Kwesi’s home village, they turned off to the left and were soon in the plantation. Kwesi told Kwame to park the vehicle and they got out for what was forewarned to be a long walk.

Adjoa said that she had no interest in long walks and had seen oil palms before. Tom looked with relief at the overarching palm trees, realising that they would be walking in the shade. With a wide sweep of his arm Kwesi indicated the broad extent of his land, all covered in oil palms. Leaving Adjoa sitting besides the vehicle, the three men plunged into the dark shadows that filled the avenues between the trees. Tom tried to steer his thoughts away from the reptilian fauna that might inhabit these shady tracks and grassy verges. He concentrated on following closely where Kwesi had trodden as he enthusiastically led his visitors further and further into the heart of his domain.

They did not attempt to count how many beehives they saw scattered about under the oil palms over a wide area. They hailed occasional pairs of workers dutifully undertaking various aspects of hive management, including the all important harvesting of honey. Kwesi explained that unlike in England where honey could only be produced in the summer, here the bees were active all the year round. There were no cold winter months during which the bees needed to be fed. Tom asked about the honey yield and Kwesi said that some hives could produce up to 15 litres a year, although the average was nearer 5 litres. He showed Tom his honey store currently stocked with three full 200 litre oil drums. Beeswax, cast in cylinders about 20 cm in diameter and 8 cm thick, were stacked to the roof of the shed. “Can you help us find markets for beeswax?” asked Kwesi, “I’ve read that it has more than one hundred industrial uses.”

Tom asked about the local uses of beeswax and Kwame told him that there was a small demand from the traditional lost-wax bronze casting industry and from people doing screen printing but the beekeepers were now producing well in excess of local demand. Part of the problem was the Kenyan top bar hive that produced more wax and less honey than a modern European framed hive would. The Kenyan hive had been introduced as an easily managed hive for beginner beekeepers but experienced beekeepers like Kwesi should be moving on to a new framed hive now being introduced by the TCC. When the bees produced honey in a framed comb they wasted very little honey in producing wax. The comb in its frame was replaced in the hive after the honey had been extracted and the only wax made by the bees was to cap the cells. With the introduction of framed hives, honey production would increase and wax production would reduce.

Tom asked Kwame why the framed hive had not been introduced earlier. He was told that they were waiting for the introduction of the centrifuge that was needed to extract the honey from the frames. It was only recently that locally manufactured centrifuges had become available. Kwesi said that he would order a centrifuge from SRS Engineering next time he went to Kumasi.

Then Tom asked about the export prospects for beeswax. Kwame told him that the TCC had enquired about the international market and there was scope to supply industrialised countries but the real benefit would come if the beeswax could be processed to remove its colour and scent. This had been demonstrated experimentally by Professor Kuffuor at the chemistry department of the university. In this condition it could serve as a raw material for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries for making products as diverse as lipsticks and suppositories. Kwame had also heard that the Roman Catholic Church required that all its candles should be made of pure beeswax. At the present time all beekeepers were being advised to store their beeswax in anticipation of markets being found in the not-too-distant future.