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Sweet as honey success
Bee farmer, Rwanda
YOU know what they say about how God works in mysterious ways? It's hard to figure any other way to explain how Lesster Leow left Singapore in 2000 as a cowboy entrepreneur in unexplored African business territory trying to sell fire extinguishers in Uganda - but ended up as the defacto champion for the country's honey industry instead.
Over the past 15 years, Mr Leow went from not knowing which side of a bee is up to teaching African bee farmers how to literally clean up their traditional but questionable honey harvesting methods and turn their poor quality, cheap product into pure, enzyme rich raw liquid gold that is certified in Germany and sold throughout Europe.
It was a long, painstaking process to get to the point where he was single-handedly helping Ugandan farmers produce eight tonnes of honey a year (a tiny production by world standards, he says). In 2009, he met a group of Singapore investors who persuaded him to relocate to Rwanda to do the same thing, with plans to scale up the business. Production is even tinier now since it takes a long time to build up the infrastructure, train the farmers and build the hives and his last harvest yielded just 800kg of honey. But the backbone of the business is patience, not profit, says the earnest 52-year-old.
Africa is his home now, and Mr Leow returns to Singapore once or twice a year to touch base with friends and family, and no doubt the local food. Even he marvels at how his priorities have changed since 2000 when "I was young and just wanted to make money". But as business ventures are wont to do, they go belly up. When he and his investors discovered that Ugandans didn't have the kind of disposable income to buy their products, they turned their attention to what they could export out of Africa instead.
By chance, Mr Leow met a German professor who specialised in honey bees and was in Africa then to study the local bees - the most ferocious of their kind but also the most resilient to the viruses that were attacking their brethren in developed countries. While the latter were treated with antibiotics, the African bees were healthy and producing pure honey that was not at risk of being contaminated by antibiotic-treated bees. A business idea was born.
With the German professor as his teacher, Mr Leow spent his first year being stung by so many bees that he eventually developed immunity to the venom. His task was just to spend two years setting up the infrastructure and persuading local bee farmers to stop their practice of burning bee hives and then removing the honey (usually with bare hands) to be bottled and sold at the local market. But as he was making headway, the economic crunch of 2003 caused his original investors to pull out the same year - leaving him to either pack up and go home or stay on to continue what he started.
Recalling how his first year of going solo had him surviving on S$0.50 worth of sweet potatoes and corn a day, Mr Leow says "it was through the process of struggling that I realised it's more meaningful to be someone who doesn't just talk about making money but contributes to the community".
For him, "The joy comes from watching farmers acquire skills from nothing. Weaving beehives, putting them in the field, waiting for the bees to colonise and then harvesting with no cost at all. The bees are the ones who collect the nectar and produce the honey. They just need to make sure the hives are not disturbed by predators - ants, lizards, snakes. And with the low-cost investment, they are able to generate a high-value product."
With the worldwide population of bees plummeting, Mr Leow is especially protective of bees and concerned about bee-keeping practices around the world.
"Modernisation has modified the way bees are suriving. Hives are constructed according to what man wants it to be, not how bees should live. One bad example is how, to keep bees from absconding, some modern beekeepers clip the wings of the queen bee so she can't fly. The whole colony listens to the queen so even if the hive is infested with mites or viruses, they're at the mercy of the bee farmers because they can't escape.
"For us, African bees are the most aggressive but we don't clip the wings of the queen so they can leave if they need to. They can find a better home instead of being forced to stay and be stressed out." Other practices include harvesting honey from honeycombs and recycling them "so that the bees don't have to consume so much honey to produce the beeswax - they can just store the honey in the existing combs. We don't know how hygienic that is because the combs can become contaminated." For his Rwanda honey, random samples are constantly sent to Switzerland for tests so that they are certified to EU standards before they are exported. He's proud of the fact that he was the first to get certification to export the honey - before that, African honey had never left the country.
Now, with his new set of investors, Mr Leow is focussed on building up the Rwanda operation, and he runs a school to teach the local bee farmers, and his overall plan is to transfer what he has learnt to the local people so they can still have the skills to continue to earn a living even if he's no longer around. What keeps him going are the bees - "they are so important and they are living beings", which is why he constantly gets riled up when he comes across bee-keeping operations that he feels do not have their welfare in mind.
What does he get out of what some may see as a thankless job in a strange land? "Job satisfaction, passion. I'm a nature lover." He would love to do more to protect bees, "but I can only do what's within my capacity". But he says he's not the only one with a mission. "There are others who are also fighting against the big pesticide companies, and they have proof that pesticides released into the environment are killing the bees."
Asked if he would return to Singapore to start a bee-keeping farm, Mr Leow says he would be more than happy to help anyone who's interested to do so. While he is not in favour of urban bee-keeping in Singapore as there isn't enough vegetation in the built-up areas to provide food for the bees, it's perfectly possible to do so in say Kranji or Lim Chu Kang. And especially Pulau Ubin, which would be an ideal location. "But maintaining colonies need skills and experience."
Meanwhile, he has been contacted by potential investors in Penang who are interested in bee-keeping. It doesn't involve a high investment, says Mr Leow. But more important, anyone wanting to go into beekeeping has to go into it with the right mindset. "Loving bees means protecting them, and not stressing them," he says.
Busy as a bee
BEFORE he became a bee conservationist, Carl Baptista was a pest controller. Dousing insects in pesticides was how he made a living as part of his family business. Four months ago however, the 39-year-old left that life behind, and struck out on his own with a new company he co-founded called Pollen Nation.
For now, they do pretty much everything bee-related - they conduct "bee-vacuations", facilitate bee hive adoptions, give educational talks to schools on bee conservation, and more.
"My objective is not honey generation, it's pollination," says Mr Baptista. "It's about being protectors of particular species, while getting rid of the species that you don't want. Bees, dragonflies, butterflies - those you shouldn't kill. But (my previous) company didn't quite see it the way I did, they couldn't quite see that bees are not a pest. A lot of people still cannot cross that hurdle."
So instead of killing bees like he used to, Mr Baptista now uses various methods to remove bee hives, and later releases them back into the wild in far-flung places like the Kranji countryside. He says: "I'm not telling you that you have to save the bees, but I'm giving you a choice now. There's another option besides killing them and if you want to use it, you can."
The other main focus of his business is the educational talks that he conducts in schools and other learning institutions about bees and conservation. These talks also come with the option of adopting a bee hive.
For this part of the business however, Mr Baptista chooses not to work with the black and yellow stinging honey bees that you and I are used to hearing about. Instead, he prefers to work with their much smaller and lesser-known cousins - the stingless bees.
There are over 60 species of stingless bees in Singapore, says Mr Baptista, but most people don't even know they exist because they associate bees with honey, and these stingless bees produce a lot less honey than the stinging ones.
It's not that hard to tell them apart too, he adds. Generally speaking, stinging bees have yellowish markings on them with black stripes, but stingless bees do not. The stingless ones are almost totally black, except maybe for a small tinge of white on some of them.
"They look like flies, and on first glance you'd think they are flies. That's why we want to get the message out. The more people realise these bees are totally safe, the more Singapore's going to be a beautiful place because we're not killing them anymore," he says.
That's his main message anyway - that bees are crucial as pollinators in Singapore, and they should be allowed to thrive in our local parks.
Says Mr Baptista: "You can't expect people to go to the beach and not see crabs and fish. If they don't want to see crabs and fish, then they should go to the swimming pool. If people want to go to the parks to see nature and beautiful plants, then there has to be insects because the plants cannot survive without them."
He highlights that bees are just phase one of Pollen Nation's overall aim to preserve Singapore's natural landscape. Next on his list is the local butterfly population, ladybirds, and dragonflies. Ultimately, his motivation comes from a fascination with the natural process of pollination anyway, and that involves all these insects.
He explains: "(Pollination) is an instantaneous transaction between two parties. A flower doesn't need to produce nectar, they do so to attract bees. Bees don't need the pollen, but take it anyway while taking the sugar solution to make honey. There's a trade-off, and in doing so, they create magic."
Bee calm and carry on
URBAN farmer Robert Pearce has always loved bees - ever since he was 10 years old. After all, that was when he first started keeping them with his grandfather, while growing up in the United Kingdom.
So 30 years later, it's not surprising that after coming to Singapore and co-founding the urban farming consultancy Edible Gardens, Mr Pearce has found himself right back in the middle of the buzzing all over again.
"I've always kept bees as a hobby, and (my co-founder Bjorn Low) knows this so he has always asked me to do something with bees," says Mr Pearce, who came to Singapore as a landscape designer over five years ago, and started Edible Gardens with Mr Low in 2012. "I always said no, because Singapore doesn't want bees, and as a foreigner I was afraid I would get deported," he says with a chuckle.
Two years ago however, one of their colleagues Thomas Lim was inspired to work with bees, so Mr Pearce finally agreed to work together with him and start a bee-relocation service under the company.
"The reason we got involved in this is that we wanted to help preserve genetic diversity in Singapore's bee population. It has all sorts of importance that we don't always realise. Trees are pollinated by bees, so without them, there would be no fruits. And while you might not miss the bees when they are gone, you may miss the wild flowers and orchids that die out because of it," he explains.
At the moment, however, Edible Gardens has decided to place less focus on their bee-relocation service, and prefer to refer cases to Carl Baptista of Pollen Nation instead. The few calls a week that they do entertain on their own are mostly done out of personal interest.
"Our interest was always more to save bees, than to have use for them. We've got a few hives of our own in a couple of places that we keep mostly as a hobby. We don't really produce very much honey. It's not a commercial thing really. Our core business is growing herbs and vegetables," he says.
Down the road however, Mr Pearce reveals that they might be looking to work on some naturally-farmed beauty and skincare products using things like honey, beeswax, and royal jelly. They are still in the research stage for that however, but it's something they have been thinking about for a while.
According to Mr Pearce, he has found that the bees in Singapore tend to be more docile and less likely to sting people than the ones he used to keep in the UK. His theory is that the ones in Singapore have no winter to store up for, so they tend to be less protective of their honey than the ones in temperate countries.
In fact, sometimes he doesn't even need to put on a protective bee suit when checking on the few bee hives that he keeps, because as long as he remains calm and moves slowly, the bees usually don't mind him poking about their hive.
He says: "Bees simply aren't interested in people, they don't want to sting you. So it's like having a pet, except your dog doesn't give you tasty honey to eat. It's instinctive to be nervous around bees, but people just need to understand that if you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone. That's the message we want to send, really."