Charles Michio Turner
The town of Pindaya, close to the famous trekking path between Kalaw and Naung Shwe, is home to Plan Bee’s recently opened beekeeping Visitor Center. With beekeeping becoming more and more of an established agricultural practice in Myanmar, there is plenty to show the socially-conscious tourist who want to see the potential of Shan State. The Visitor Center comes with a hands-on tour of how honey is farmed and a tasting of the final product.
As jobs and opportunity shift towards cities, the honey bee is becoming an economic engine for rural communities around the world. In Myanmar this is happening in southern Shan State. The project fittingly called Plan Bee was founded 3 years ago by TAG International Development with the mission of teaching modern bee farming practices to the most underserved in the new Myanmar economy. In Shan State these individuals are overwhelmingly in Danu and Pao communities. After a phase of means-testing, Plan Bee selects unskilled day laborers with few economic prospects and trains them in how to operate their own bee farm business. And so far, the honey is flowing.
Plan Bee was founded by Tag International Development, a charity group that pursues community-based development, and made a reality from funding by LIFT, a UN affiliated organization, and the Israeli Embassy which helped connect the project with personnel.
Plan Bee’s idea of using beekeeping as a medium for economic empowerment has been implemented in several other developing nations, such as Zimbabwe and India. Bee farming is not a native practice in these other countries nor is it in Myanmar yet they are able to succeed (generate a profit, support a family) because of the high value potential of honey and the relatively low maintenance costs of tending to bee hives.
Bees demand few resources compared to other sectors of agriculture while their mere presence can help maintain biodiversity. For impoverished Shan farmers, the minimal amount of land needed to host a bee farm makes the business an immediate possibility. The forests of rural Shan State, which are nectar-rich according to the Tag website, naturally provide the food and water for bees in ways that do not compete with cash crops and other livestock. A standard hive, which holds tens of thousands of bees, can generate around 30 lbs of raw honey in any given season.
How much 30 lbs of honey is worth of course depends on quality and where the final product is sold. Myanmar’s demand for honey has risen as it is increasingly used in cosmetic and health supplies. Yet the financial return for Shan honey farms remains lower than what adjacent Shan farms, with more traditional harvests, are able to generate. Bee farms will ultimately earn more once their product is imported to foreign markets where honey is a dietary staple.
For example, raw honey has an established customer base in the US, where a pound of the stuff can go for $19 on amazon.com (suppose to 4500 Ks in Shan State) even though the supply is dwindling rapidly because of a decline in the North American bee population. No consensus has been reached as to why the honey bee is disappearing in certain parts of the world, an epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), but the problem has yet to affect Asian farms. (A curious phenomenon considering that Plan Bee, and most Asian-based bee farms, use the same type of European honey bee as troubled American farms). The damage in the supply chain caused by CCD coupled with the rise in environmental awareness in the West gives Myanmar bee farmers a potential market to thrive within. Before that can happen, Plan Bee is focused on making sure that bee farms in Shan State are economically sustainable regardless if Plan Bee is around to help. Plan Bee is slated to help grow beekeeping in Myanmar for years to come, but the goal has always been to empower local communities to lead the industry on their own.
Another obstacle that Plan Bee faces is including 40% of their workers in the daily operations: women. Where beekeeping is low-maintenance in terms of physical resources and labour, it does require extended periods of travel. A bee farmer must migrate south to Bago division with their pollinators every year in order to reap the honey produced in the colder months. Yet it is against Myanmar custom for females to leave their town without the company of a family member- a cultural norm that is especially prevalent in Danu and Pao communities.
Frustration naturally arose once some of the most promising beekeepers, who happened to be women, were sequestered to half the season. Plan Bee realized, however, the other ways for women to contribute to their town’s growing industry. Most female beekeepers are capitalising on their knowledge through in-house crafting cosmetic products while their male counterparts head south.
Plan Bee has undertaken more of a business consultancy role as Shan locals have shown capable of operating their own farms. Their main challenge is connecting farmers directly with the customer so that they can benefit fully from the growing demand for honey. The increase in medicinal use of honey and demand from China as well as the West are good signs for the budding industry . Before Shan farms can join this economic wave, they are looking for more sales here in Yangon. You can find Plan Bee sponsored products at Pomelo, Yangon Bakehouse, Sharky’s, Mya Chemical Free’s delivery service, Green Hill (a Japanese NGO) and Heho Airport. Anyone interested in learning more about beekeeping, community development or trying some of the honey can come to the Pindaya Visitor Center and tour the farms that are abuzz.
All photos provided by Yalee Azani from Plan Bee