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African Engineers: Honey for All

African Engineers: Honey for All

Engineers in a developing country often find themselves at the base of an inverted pyramid of grassroots industrial activity: upgrading mechanical workshops to produce machines for rural industries that supply inputs for agriculture and/or post-harvest processing. In Kumasi, Ghana, for example, the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) introduced the manufacture of carpenters saw benches and taught local carpenters to produce Kenyan top-bar beehives to support an extensive beekeeping industry. In Kumasi in the 1970s only one workshop produced saw benches, perhaps a dozen or so carpenters produced beehives but the beekeepers came to number hundreds with some individual apiaries employing hundreds of beehives.

When in 1975 TCC engineers studied the lost-wax bronze-casting industry of kurofofrom near Kumasi, the artisans, makers of the famous Ashanti gold weights, complained of shortage of beeswax. It was soon discovered that the only locally-produced honey and beeswax in Ghana came from honey hunters who used fire to drive wild bees from their nests and take their honey. The honey was of poor quality, often tasting of smoke and contaminated by the brood: young bees in the egg and pupa stages of growth. It was realised that a beekeeping industry could supply the local market with better quality honey, beeswax and other bee products.

SIS Engineering Ltd, a client of the TCC was producing carpenters’ saw benches for woodworking enterprises making weaving looms for another rural industry project. These same carpenters could, no doubt, produce beehives if suitable plans were provided, so a search began for a beehive designed to accommodate the African honey bee. In 1977 it was found that a project in Kenya funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had developed the Kenyan Top-Bar Hive (KTBH) and drawings of the hive were obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture in Nairobi. Early in 1978 three of these hives were produced in the Department of Building Technology workshop on the KNUST campus.

Two of the new beehives were supplied to an APPLE project at Atebubu in Brong-Ahafo Region which aimed to train wild honey hunters as beekeepers. The third was installed in the university’s botanical garden where it was soon colonised by local bees. Unfortunately, the university had no trained beekeepers and it was not until 1979 that it was possible to send two people from Kumasi to Kenya for training. On their return, some serious beekeeping started and the on-campus apiary was steadily expanded.

By January 1981 the TCC was confident enough to begin a training programme and a First National Workshop on Beekeeping was held on the KNUST campus. It was attended by 53 people, 20 were US Peace Corps volunteers, who were very serious in promoting the new rural industry, and 33 were Ghanaians and a few foreign residents from all parts of the country. A number of these pioneers became large-scale beekeepers who helped and encouraged many of their friends and neighbours to start their own apiaries.

Of all the projects of the TCC started in the first two decades of its existence, it is likely that beekeeping touched the lives of most people and spread economic, social and health benefits most widely throughout the country. Some beekeepers, like Kwesi Addai in Sunyani built up apiaries of 300 hives and produced honey stored in 200 litre oil drums. Annual sales amounted to millions of cedis and traders from Cote d’Ivoire crossed the border to purchase much of the produce. Many small farmers installed a few beehives on their modest plots and women seeking to improve the diet of their small children were encouraged by special programmes to establish single hive apiaries to produce honey for home use and for sale.

As for the lost wax bronze casters, beeswax had never been so cheap or so plentiful. Large stocks of beeswax built up at the larger commercial apiaries and the TCC was faced with demands to find export markets for this product. Beekeepers were also seeking markets for other bee products such as royal jelly, pollen and bee venom, all of which can be used as medicines or dietary supplements.

Beekeeping touched the lives of thousands of people. It was the sort of project in which international development agencies delight, bringing benefits to the poorest people in the most deprived rural areas. Yet it could not have flourished but for the small group of carpenters who made the beehives, and the carpenters could not have coped with the large demand for beehives without the machines made by a single engineering workshop located in the great city of Kumasi. The international development agencies are reluctant to support projects in what they consider to be the wealthier urban areas, but without these projects supported by institutions like the TCC the mass-effect rural projects would not be possible, unless sustained permanently from outside. For locally self-sustained economic development in developing countries a strong urban-based engineering industry is essential.

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