LIQUID GOLD: Haile Gebru sells honey in Mekele. Picture: AFP
The beehives of Ethiopia, Africa’s top honey producer, make about a quarter of the continent’s honey, but travellers who come to sample the liquid gold often find there isn’t enough to go around.

Experts say the beekeeping - or apiculture - sector is a long way from harvesting its full potential, hampered by outdated, low-yield techniques, periodic droughts and uncompetitive prices.

Honey traditionally plays a big role in Ethiopian life - its delicious white, red and yellow varieties are used in cooking, for medicinal purposes and as a key ingredient in the local mead known as tej.

But most farmers use outdated styles of beehives that are stored in trees or clay jars. And these do not produce as much honey as modern wooden boxes, says Jürgen Greiling, a senior adviser at the Ethiopian Apiculture Board.

Using modern techniques, honey production has the potential to pull thousands of farmers out of poverty, experts say. Alem Abraha, who was living from hand to mouth as a subsistence farmer, took up beekeeping full-time about 10 years ago. “My life has been completely changed,” he says, as bees circle his head in the village of Zaena, situated in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray.

It is on Tigray’s mountain slopes that the Adey Abeba flower grows, a key component in making the unique white honey that is one of Ethiopia’s most prized exports.

“If you train farmers (in modern methods), that would transform production,” Alem says.

Tesfamariam Assefa, a co-ordinator at the Tigray regional agriculture bureau, said the government aimed to boost the region’s honey exports from 50% to 80% of output by teaching farmers better bee-keeping techniques.

In 2008, the EU gave the green light to imports of Ethiopian honey. However, the country is still only exporting at most 800 tons of the 50 000 it produces annually.

Honey merchants in Tigray say they are noticing more and more interest from buyers in from Ethiopia and beyond.

“Tigray’s honey has a lot of customers all over Ethiopia,” says Haile Gebru, who sells honey from a shopping mall in Tigray capital of Mekele. “But production is low.”

The low yields of beehives, along with droughts, have caused honey shortages that drive up prices to as much as $20 a kilo.

“I’m not able to sell as much as I can because the price is not competitive,” says Daniel Gebremeskel, managing director of Comel, a honey processing and export company in Mekele.

Greiling says people smuggled honey across the border to Sudan or in their luggage at Mekele airport to avoid export taxes.

The regional government is seeking to curb the undercover trade by introducing limits on the amount of honey that can be taken in checked baggage.

Gebremeskel is remodelling his processing facility and seeking to woo buyers abroad.

“We’re getting more demand than before,” he says. - AFP