Kodich in West Pokot County and Ng’oron in Baringo can be harsh places to live.
Soils are barren, rainfall is erratic and resources are scarce.
The adverse impacts of climate change and natural disasters like drought and famine are all too common here. Food security is uncertain and poverty is on the rise.
Compounding the situation, the major common economic activities here are charcoal making and pastoralism, which further degrade the already fragile environment.
Other activities include traditional beekeeping and operating small businesses.
But it is modern beekeeping that is changing the face of the region now rich with lessons.
And what is more? The business has helped change the lives of reformed warriors, who have embraced it as an alternative livelihood.
Jackson Longronyang, a reformed warrior headsman in Kodich, Kacheliba, West Pokot, knew no other source of income to support his wife and four children apart from stealing livestock.
The daunting challenge before him was how to rebuild his life from scratch after his entire herd of cattle and flock of sheep were driven away by raiders from Uganda.
But five years after he decided to start bee farming, Mr Longronyang, 37, has everything going for him.
“For many years, many people in the region did not consider beekeeping as a meaningful source of income apart from harvesting honey for traditional brews,” said Mr Longronyang, the chairman of Kodich Beekeeping Self-Help Group.
The group brings together more than 20 beekeepers from Kodich and other parts of Kacheliba division. Mr Longronyang is now getting a reliable income after penetrating markets in Western Kenya.
“Before beekeeping came, livestock was the main economic activity here and the loss of animals in raids or drought was a big blow to the community,” he said.
“We are no longer troubled by the cattle raiders as they do not target beehives and honey, which mean little to their livelihoods but a lot to us. Beekeeping has proved more meaningful than animals that expose us to threats of recurrent attacks.”
This venture could prove a game-changer, emphasised Mr Longronyang, adding that more people now appreciate that diversifying to other sources of income can enable them to educate their children and meet their basic needs.
“Apart from income generation, the investment has proved instrumental in combating insecurity caused by cattle raids along the common border since most of the youth who participate in the attacks are now actively involved in honey production,” he said.
The group received a boost recently when the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) provided them with modern beehives and pledged to help them to secure a market for their products at competitive rates, which has changed the farmers’ fortunes, they said.
KVDA purchases the honey for Sh500 a kilo, depending on quality, as opposed to an average of Sh250 by traders.
But Mr Longronyang is quick to admit that it will not be easy for pastoralists to entirely shift to beekeeping as cattle are still highly regarded as the main source of income.
“It is not easy changing the cultural attitudes of most young people to take up beekeeping as an alternative source of income,” he said.
His group started with capital of Sh100,000, enough to build modern beehives.
The region has two honey-harvesting seasons — February to May and July to August.
Beekeeper Ruth Maira used to have 15 beehives, producing between 15-20 buckets, but now, with advice and help from the group, she harvests 100 buckets of honey each season.
“I started keeping bees without any knowledge of how to go about it. Mine was to hang a beehive there and wait for bees. Since I didn’t have a processor, after harvesting, I sieved the honey using local methods,” she said.
“I had to invest in plants that flower and also to put water near the apiary during dry seasons. I have since seen a big difference after I was trained together with other beekeepers in our group. Through cooperatives we will export our honey.”
Grace Cheptoo, from Kapachikwa in Kodich, who started honey production in 2010, said farmers under cooperatives are using modern beehives.
“Bees need clean hives and need flowers next to them to collect nectar. I have learned that modern beehives are clean and easy to access for monitoring purposes, unlike log hives,” she said.
500 tonnes of honey annually
Bees, she said, had saved them from the effects of droughts and food hunger as the family now feeds off honey.
John Nikol, a honey farmer in Baringo who stopped goat farming in 2010, now says he makes Sh20,000 a month from honey, money he could not imagine making from raising goats.
And unlike West Pokot, Baringo has three honey-harvesting seasons – March, August and December – making it even more profitable.
Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture indicate that the region produces an average of 500 tonnes of honey annually, contributing 15 per cent of its total income.
KVDA Managing Director Sammy Naporos said the agency has used Sh300 million to buy honey from farmers and use it in honey production in factories.
“We have used Sh54 million this financial year for honey production and supporting farmers,” he said.
He said their venture targeted Baringo and West Pokot, which lead in honey production, with the North Rift region as a whole priding itself on producing 80 percent of honey in Kenya.
“Honey production is the second income generator after livestock keeping in the region,” Mr Naporos said.
“We teach farmers on better ways of honey production and we have trained many on various ways of improving honey production and therefore a farmer can fetch good money if they access the right markets.”
KVDA Agribusiness Manager Everline Tipis said the agency aims to expand honey production.
“We want to produce high-quality honey that can be exported. We use an extractor and we are planning to give them to farmers,” she said.
Modern honey hives, she said, have proved a better way to improve honey production.