Honey has a central role in Ethiopian culture: it is the essential ingredient in the national drink, Tej, a kind of mead, and bee products are widely used for medicinal purposes in hospitals. The country is one of the world’s leading honey and beeswax producers, but the industry is relatively undeveloped; honey is mostly produced by small-scale farmers without access to modern hives and international markets.

To help promote Ethiopian honey and improve quality production, the internationl non-profit organization Slow Food has created the first network of quality honey producers in Ethiopia. The network helps beekeepers and communities to share experiences, training opportunities and marketing tools. The Honeys of Ethiopia network emphasizes the individual characteristics of the different honeys produced by its members. For example, the Shallalà Honey Producers in southern Ethiopia make a yellowish-red honey, very dense and sweet, produced from the flowers of local plants like sunflower, black mustard and papaya and mango trees.

Shallalà is a small town in the Hadiya zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, about 250 kilometres from the capital, Addis Abeba. The cooperative has 22 members, of which 15 are active, and all the activities are run directly by the members. “The main objective of the cooperative is to make the life of its members sustainable. All the members are from a very poor background and they live in the countryside with a very limited possibility of a decent lifestyle, and it is often difficult to survive,” said Zerihun Dessalegn, the coordinator of the Honeys of Ethiopia network.

Within the cooperative, the members “can work and grow together, by sharing experiences and helping each other in moments of difficulty,” he continued. “They can look for a better market together and the savings can improve production and the possibility of income for the whole cooperative.” He said getting loans was much simpler as a cooperative, and it was easier to work with institutions and make an impact on the wider community. Zerihun said the beekeepers had started working with local farmers to create a seed bank and to work on reforesting the area and preserving what remains of the natural forest. They are also trying to spread knowledge about modern beekeeping methods among other traditional beekeepers, along with the advantages of using by-products like wax and propolis, which often go to waste.

One special aspect of the cooperative is that it involves women in the wax production. All the phases of wax production are carried out by the beekeepers’ wives, something quite unusual in Ethiopia because women are generally never involved in beekeeping.

Since joining the Honeys of Ethiopia network, some of the Shallalà honey has even been exported to Italy and sold at Slow Food events like the Salone del Gusto in Italy. “It is very much appreciated also by the community of expatriates in Ethiopia because of its genuineness and the particularly sweet and unique taste,” added Zerihun.