Madvee Muthu is an international development practitioner and an entrepreneur. Besides that she runs the company behind the brand “Bees with Stories“.
She is currently running a Kickstarter Campaign to raise funds for our UK launch. The plan is to have the products ready for her first trade event at the UK’s Specialty and Fine Food Fair, from 1-3 September. If successful, this Kickstarter campaign will immediately and directly benefit about 1300 beekeepers from Ethiopia, Madagascar and Tanzania.
Bees with Stories is a brand of bee products sourced exclusively from Africa. The brand, also African, has a very specific vision: to have Bees with Stories products be present on all premium markets, not just to add to the growing evidence that African products can be both of great quality and have aesthetic value, but also because of what the sales would mean for the communities behind the products.
She spoke to The Exchange about her experiences in the honey industry. Here is what she had to say:
Tell us more about “Bees with Stories”
It is a fairly new venture which I registered in January 2018, though the work for it started over three years ago. After a year or so of researching the apiculture sector and its potentials, I developed a relatively simple business model which lies on 2 pillars. The first one is to design a branding/marketing strategy around the brand ‘Bees with Stories’ and establish a distribution network for export-ready beekeeper groups to sell their products and 2. is to collaborate with local technical partners and beekeeper groups so that the latter can improve their techniques and become export ready. Currently, we are preparing our launch on the UK market with 4 honey varietals – 2 from Madagascar, 1 from Ethiopia and 1 from Tanzania.
What inspired you to venture into this business?
I am an international development practitioner who trained as an economist with a specialization in Social Policy. In January 2016, I decided to set up my own consultancy firm – Impact Consulting – because I wanted to do development work differently.
My first assignment under my newly established consultancy sent me to Zambia. It was during that mission that the seed for “Bees with Stories” was planted, more precisely through a discussion with a conservation economist that I randomly met in the Lusaka crafts market. We discussed our mutual interests in Ethiopia for a while. It was during that conversation that I learnt that beekeeping is an activity promoted among remote communities as an alternative to woodcutting as part of forest conservation work.
This discovery piqued my interest. Having worked and lived in different African countries as an international development practitioner, I remembered tasting local honey wherever I went and enjoying its taste. But you could never find these honey varietals outside of their country of production. It made me wonder: how come we can find Manuka honey (from New Zealand) throughout the world, yet we never come across any African honey brand outside of Africa.
Months after, I was still intrigued and decided to research the topic. I packed my bags and went to Ethiopia and Madagascar to gather information from people working along the apiculture value chain. I spoke to beekeepers, processors, packers, distributors, retailers and consumers. From all this, I was convinced that—despite the many bottlenecks along the value chain—the potential to transform African apiculture and put African honey varietals on the map was one I wanted to explore. What really appealed to me was the inherent symbiotic nature of beekeeping. Transforming African apiculture would not only translate into additional income for African beekeepers but promote forest conservation and support food security.
This is how the business model for ‘Bees with Stories’ came about…It has morphed significantly over the past 3 years, adapting to local realities, financial constraints, inadequate local equipment, etc. With each hurdle, we have adapted and we are now working with a model that is fairly lean and efficient.
How do you go about sourcing for the honey?
We work exclusively with beekeepers, meaning we do not work with middlemen who only buy and resell honey. This is because part of our mission is to promote beekeeping as an income-generating activity and we want the beekeeper to profit from his/her trade.
We are currently working in 3 countries. Finding the right group of beekeepers in each country takes a while. For our UK launch, we focused on finding beekeepers who were certified organic already. We still run sample tests to ensure the standards are respected. When identifying suppliers, I look for the following: consistency in supply; quality of the honey and how organised the group is. Consistency because we need to ensure that the supplier can meet our order if the collaboration becomes long-term; quality to ensure that our positioning and our products are in sync; and organised because it helps with the buying process when there is order within the beekeeper group.
What bodies of certification are needed for one to qualify to venture into international markets?
That will depend on the country you wish to export to and which body is recognised in that particular country. There are several bodies of certification; some of recognised in multiple countries. You also have to ensure that you abide by the legislature concerning imported honey for that country.
How would you describe the type of honey found in Africa?
There is no right answer to that question. Honey will taste and look different based on the vegetation the bees had at their disposal. It is true that many forest honey varietals from Africa tend to be darker in colour and have a stronger taste than European honey varietals. However, you can also come across white honey varietals in Africa, such as in Ethiopia and Cameroon.
How do you guarantee the honey is quality and organic?
Our suppliers are certified organic by recognised bodies. In addition, we also test samples from our suppliers to ensure that what we are buying is truly organic. Quality assessment for honey is basically looking for defects such as signs of fermentation, over-smoking, adulteration, etc., all things you learn to pick up on if you are in the trade.
Who are your top clients?
Ha! Let’s talk again after September. I might have an answer then!
We are launching our online store in September and will be looking for distributors and retailers in the UK from September onwards. We are currently in discussion with a specialised store in the UK but nothing has been signed yet. We are waiting for the products to be ready in September to take the next step.
In Mauritius we already have an agreement with a local distributor who will place our products in all major points of sale of the island. So, we just need to get our products ready!
Name some of the challenges you have faced in the business.
Oooh soo many!
In Mauritius: Learning the realities of setting up a company in Mauritius. As easy as it was to register my company (a few minutes) and incorporating it (a few days), everything else has taken longer than expected, especially when it came to applying and benefitting from government-sponsored SME schemes. The bureaucracy involved, the constantly moving deadlines, the lack of responses from officials…it has been eye-opening.
I think the one thing that slowed me down the most is that I had applied for an SME loan from MauBank – a Mauritian bank specialised (?) in SME banking solutions – to set up a local production of honey in Mauritius. The loan was part of a scheme to promote SMEs by the government. After over a year of back and forth replying to questions from MauBank, providing financial statements, justifications, quotations, etc, my loan was declined without so much as a written explanation. That significantly impeded my progress as, for a while, I was prioritising the setting up of the site in Mauritius. The work on the Mauritius site is ongoing but I have since shifted my priorities to the UK market.
Other 3 challenges
Other challenges include freight from African countries to the UK. Shipping costs are prohibitive when doing small loads. In Ethiopia, LCL (less than container load) options are not even available, which means that we need to use air cargo options to get our honey to destination. Shipping companies have built solutions for big clients; none of them caters to the small firm or newcomer on the scene.
Another challenge has been the language barrier. We are lucky that in all our beekeeping communities, there are a few English speakers and French speakers for Madagascar. However, it can be frustrating always having to go through a third person to engage with your collaborators, which also limits our working relationship.
One key lesson is to have an open mind and an open demeanour to learning new things and constantly growing in this new trade. I’ve grown so much over the past 3 years. It’s been a steep learning curve from knowing nothing about bees and beekeeping to becoming a beekeeper and talking bees and honey pretty much every day. Working on a small budget has also meant learning skills I never thought I would learn, nor wanted to learn for that matter.
Have grit! I am trained to work in the public policy domain and to design strategies. As much as I planned the “Bees with Stories” project and tried to assess the risks, I knew there would be unexpected hurdles along the way. The hurdles are ongoing and come from every direction, some small, some big. In these situations, the ability to adapt and be flexible helps a lot. The key is to focus on finding solutions, instead of focusing on problems.
Future plans? Like 2-3 years from now.
The plan is to collaborate with beekeeper groups in 3 new countries by end 2019, and 4 new countries by end 2020. By 2020, our selection of honey varietals will originate from 10 different countries. I know! That might be slightly too ambitious!
I also hope to expand my team to tackle sales promotion and to identify and build collaborations with beekeeper groups in the 7 new countries mentioned.