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It was a very big problem – elephant thieves that raid crops in the dead of night. In the remote KwaZulu-Natal village of Gazini, a scatter of farms two kilometres from the border of Mozambique, it was a reality that struck terror in their homes and was too close for comfort. This was until Mmabatho and Desmond Morudi, a married entrepreneur duo, came up with an unlikely solution – bees – to stop the tusked raiders in their tracks.
“Initially the guys were refusing that the elephants would stay away because of the bees… Even today, I don’t think they are convinced, it’s still a test to see if it really, really works to deter the elephants,” says Mmabatho.
“That was an interesting discussion. We had it in the first training session. They said ‘elephants scared of bees – no ways’. When [the villagers] describe the terror of an elephant coming through in the village, it’s a scary experience for them. Hence it’s believable why they would believe such a large creature wouldn’t be scared of something so small,” says Desmond.
The Morudis believe that building 200 beehives, in a two-kilometre barrier, will not only fend off the elephants but also make money and help the people of Gazini sleep easy. The villagers could be forgiven for being skeptical.
“The thing that made [the threat] clear to me was when we did a trip along the border fence. There you can see exactly where the fence has been broken and where the elephants cross over. We could see the broken poles snapped in half like twigs,” says Desmond.
The Morudis have been working around this village since October 2016 convincing the villagers. A week ago, a herd trampled through their vegetable patch. They woke to see elephants in their backyard peering through their door.
“The elephants also pose a danger to themselves. As the more herds come across, they stand more chance of being killed. One was killed, it’s meat stripped to the bone in a matter of hours. It was probably attacked with just machetes,” says Mmabatho.
So far, the bee-keepers of Gazini have built 40 hives under the guidance of Mmabatho and Desmond. By January, the 11 from Gazini would have yielded R49,000 with their first harvest.
“The challenge of 200 hives is quite a bit of a stretch, it means they have to run through other villages of people who don’t even know that the project is going on. There is also the issue of leaving space for cars driving past as well as border patrols. You don’t want to cut the elephants off totally. You just want to cordon off the sensitive areas and leave behind a path,” says Desmond.
The bee-keepers of Gazini start work early. The bees get aggressive as the day wears on. The hives hang on wooden poles, 10 meters apart, and linked by barbed wire. If touched by an elephant, the hives swing and stir up the bees.
The buzzing beehive fence is the brainchild of Dr Lucy King in Kenya, Head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program for Save the Elephants, where she realized African elephants are scared of wild African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) and will avoid beehives at all costs. The bees sting the elephants’ soft skin, their eyes, face, trunk and mouth.
“The idea of developing a beehive fence deterrent system started to evolve when I saw just how much elephants were running away from disturbed bee sounds.
Using this discovery, I designed and built a novel interlinking beehive fence around small farms who were worst affected by elephant crop-raiding,” says King from her project headquarters in Nairobi.
According to King and scientists, Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) is on the rise.
“During my study observing the factors that deter elephants from disturbed honeybees, we noticed that 94% of the elephants moved away from the source of the bee sounds within 80 seconds. Alarmed elephants also engage in head-shaking and dusting behaviors as if they want to knock the stinging insects out of the air and away from their face,” says King.
The fences have an 80% success rate, are cheap, costing between $150 to $500 per 100 meters, and made from local materials, says King. The beehive fences have proven to be so successful with HEC that 13 countries have adopted similar projects, one of them being the Morudi’s growing business, The Village Market.
“We’re obsessed over [King’s] manual and her work in Kenya. We would love to meet her. That’s how it came about. At the same time we were trying to find villages that we could work with. We had the skills, we had the knowledge, we needed the natural vegetation,” says Mmabatho.
The Morudis have taken King’s research one step further. They want to use beehive fences as part of a R2,5million ($184,682) dream to harvest, bottle and deliver wild high-quality honey to the suburban shopping aisles of Sandton in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“In general, our jars sell for R55 per 375g. Then we have Mmabatho’s baby, the raw high quality for R75 per 375g. We aim to develop a luxury brand. Bringing more orders to a premium market. We work on 35 kilograms per hive per harvest. Once every three months,” says Desmond.
It’s been a long journey to this odd business in the bush for Desmond and Mmabatho.
The idea was born in Mmabatho’s grandfather’s home in Winterveld, a rural town 68 kilometers northwest of Pretoria, in 2012.
“Bees would get into our ceiling and produce so much honey that it would cave in the ceiling. Like every other family, we would try and smoke them out and kill them. But they would always come back,” says Mmabatho. I
Instead, her grandfather took the family on a bee-keeping course and Mmabatho was hooked. She started her own bee-keeping company called Iliju Bee Farm, which means honey.
“We moved to Winterveld after things started. Bought a small little house that used to be called the RDP house in the area. It was so tiny. We then built bee hives on the farm.”
Under Iliju, the couple forged a busy bee career that caught the attention of the media. Mmabatho shook hands with the likes of ministers, members of the top 100 entrepreneurs of Europe and dined with Richard Branson. In 2013, Mmabatho was selected as one of the brightest young minds in South Africa by BYM, and again as one of the emerging change-makers by Spark International.
Things got even busier and Desmond left the comfort of corporate accounting to help manage the business.
But success proved to be a devil in disguise. The business grew too quickly and couldn’t cope. They took on a bee expert who walked out on them at 3AM a year and a half later, and Iliju collapsed.
Then they started The Village Market at the end of 2014. The Morudis’ first challenge was a series of hives on the farms of Winterfeldt to help with crop pollination to improve the quality of yield and buy back the honey. They also trained the Itireleng community of the visually impaired in Ga-Rankuwa, 37 kilometers north of Pretoria.
One of the greatest challenges Mmabatho faced while starting the business was tackling gender inequality.
“When we moved into Winterfeldt, they would ask to speak to the man, the owner of the farm. It shocked me at first. But I’ve made my peace with it. It’s both our farm but they would refer to my husband as the boss. But it’s really the other way around,” says Mmabatho.
“It’s a huge contrast to urban areas. Something as simple as when you are working, the ladies would hang back in order to let the men lead. I remember in training one day, the guys were busy with something and I wanted to show the ladies to do it, yet they were so hesitant to do it, to take the lead,” says Desmond.
The couple believe that deforestation, pesticides and insecticides also affect the bees. They instead plant strong-smelling plants and herbs like onions and spring onions to discourage pests and plant flowering vegetables like tomatoes to encourage pollination.
“Bee-keeping is a low start-up business – it doesn’t generate a lot of income. Hives can only be harvested once every three months.
But we were trying to find ways to tackle unemployment and skills in villages,” says Mmabatho.
Bee hive fences are not the only solution on the table for Gazini. In addition, Elephants Rhinos and People (ERP), the Morudis’ partner in Gazini, has also started chilly farms and drilled boreholes on the Mozambique side to discourage raids by thirsty elephants.
“At the beginning of the year, the crossings were getting quite significant. Previously it had just been bulls, but then we started seeing breeding herds coming through,” says Nonceba Lushaba, the KwaZulu-Natal Coordinator of ERP.
“From the elephant’s point of view, they have realized that there are easy pickings here. It’s kind of like a naughty child who goes to pick sweets. There may be a need to tweak that behavior. Especially for an elephant that remembers absolutely everything.”
In Gazini, finding the bees is half the battle. Once the hives are built, in the closest town with electricity which is Manguzi and a 40-minute drive on sand, the bee-keepers take the hives to their homes in Gazini and attempt to colonize them.
Bees are fussy dwellers. They need sources of water, plenty of flowering plants, protective vegetation and to be out of direct sunlight. Once the bees have moved in, the keepers close the entrances at night and then transport the colony to the beehive fence. Work starts before dawn. In their bee suits, they walk with the hives on their heads to this farm. It is so remote you need a 4×4 to navigate the maze of bush trails to find it.
“Another important issue is researching bee diseases. Bee health is important if we want to conserve them. Research needs to keep track of these growing issues,” says Mmabatho.
Threats like the Varroa mite that attacks bees in the hive, and contributes in part to Colony Collapse Disorder are global concerns. This is why the couple have teamed up with the University of Pretoria (TUKS) Zoology and Entomology department’s Bee Group, that will add valuable research to elephant behavior, bee re-population and disease control.
The beepocolypse, as it was called, could even be resolved with recolonization with the African honey bee because of its resilience.
Their Gazini project has even caught the eyes of the African Union which gave them a $15,000 grant to provide research around bee diseases, cross pollination and population to TUKS.
“It’s not just the sake of doing research for the sake of research, but using it to solve community problems; to help developed communities,” says Desmond.
On the morning of inspection, Mmabatho found suspicious larvae in one hive, which was not even two months old.
“We need the bees to focus all their energy on making the honey. As soon as invaders enter the hive, they expend all their energy getting it out, which of course affects production,” says Desmond.
Once the honey is ready it its transported 600 kilometers to their bottling plant at the Riversands Incubation Hub in Fourways, Gauteng, that opened in September last year.
“The problem we have with honey in South Africa is a lot of it is imported. Because of important laws we need to irradiated it. You will see in the shops it will say it’s ionized by radiation in order to increase shelf life. The impact of that is that it takes away the good qualities from the honey.”
“There is also a lack of variation of honey in the market. We introduce some product differentiation; infusing honey with lemon or cinnamon.”
Raw honey is murky and beige in colour, a completely different experience from what you see in the shops.
“People are used to seeing this brown liquid here on the shelves that’s what they associate with honey. They don’t appreciate the real raw product will crystallize,” says Mmabatho.
Honey also can be used in health and beauty products and is a natural anti-inflammatory. Scrubs, moisturizers and masks can all be made from the by-product of the comb.
This is one business that is helping a tiny village sleep at night and got a couple of bright African entrepreneurs buzzing.