Twenty years ago, Dan Ball, a fourth-generation missionary who grew up in rural Zambia, recognized a unique opportunity when a group of beekeepers in a remote region of the south-central African country approached him in search of aid money.
The beekeepers were harvesting thick, dark, wild honey — the product of bees’ roaming through the primordial West Lunga forest.
Not only was the wild honey darker and thicker than domestic varieties, it also was truly organic, made from pollen in a forest many miles from the nearest herbicides and pesticides of industrial agriculture.
Ball thought, instead of aid, he could export the honey to earn a profit that would finance training more Zambian beekeepers, which would create new, sustainable economic opportunities in the impoverished region. He established a business called Forest Fruits and began by working with about 100 beekeepers, selling the honey in bulk to European markets.
After nearly two decades, Ball was successfully wholesaling the honey across Europe. In 2012, Ball visited with his Canadian friends Paul Whitney and Liz Connell, who’d spent eight years living in Zimbabwe. “They heard about what we’re doing and their eyes lit up. They asked me about the North American market,” says Ball.
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Whitney and Connell were artists with no experience in food, retail marketing or importing — but a strong passion to expand Ball’s mission. They signed on to distribute in Canada and the United States.
Today, more than 6,000 Zambians have been trained to harvest the honey that is a key ingredient for Fire Cider and craft beer. And it’s available on its own as African Bronze honey in bottles on the shelves of Whole Foods Markets throughout Canada.
One percent of the profits from the bottled honey’s sales goes to educate more beekeepers and provide additional services to the African communities where they live.
Raw, Organic Honey from Traditional African Beekeepers
African Bronze’s raw, organic honey comes from beekeepers who don’t use commercial hives. Instead, they harvest the wild honey twice a year from bark hives made to look like hollowed-out logs. Ball works with hundreds of paid tribal “extension agents” to arrange meetings with the beekeepers at the time of harvests. The beekeepers are paid cash by Forest Fruits when the honey is picked up in their villages, and then the honey is processed and some is bottled in Forest Fruits’ Zambian factories, which employ about 150 people. Drums and bottles of honey are shipped to Canada for Whitney and Connell to distribute.
When Ball got started, no established supply chain — much less such a mission-driven, transparent supply chain — existed for bringing wild honey from the African bush to North America. To help assure potential buyers of the honey’s quality and safety, Ball had already secured global organic and food-safety certifications for Forest Fruits’ honey. Whitney and Connell qualified African Bronze as a Certified B Corporation.
Whitney and Connell went all in with their first order for one full shipping container, or 29,000 bottles, of honey. They started selling to fundraising groups that had previously sold cookie dough or chocolate almonds — products without the social mission or the fascinating story of African Bronze honey.
“We decided to cut out what we didn’t know,” Whitney says. “Forget the wholesalers and retailers, and go to the consumers. Sort of.”
Transparent Supply Chain: Benefits and Challenges
From the beginning, African Bronze focused on profit. “A pillar of our philosophy is that trade is more sustainable than aid. Dan [Ball] taught the beekeepers to operate as business ventures,” Whitney says.
African Bronze’s goal was to be profitable — loans repaid and positive cash flow — within five years. “We are not a charity. We are a business,” Whitney says. “We need profits in order to be sustainable.” By focusing on marketing their honey’s unique origins, Whitney and Connell expect to build to a level of sales that should allow them to break even by the end of this year and be profitable in 2017, a year ahead of schedule, they say.
Whole Foods Market heard African Bronze’s unique honey story in 2014 when Whitney contacted Lisa Slater, who was the store team leader in Ottawa, Ontario. “Six months later, we were in stores in Canada and had a request to open in U.S. stores,” Whitney says.
This opportunity also presented the company with one of its biggest challenges so far. In order to expand, Whole Foods Market wanted the honey brand to grow its product line with new, varied options to attract a wider range of consumers. “The name of the game is shelf space, and a single honey is hard for a consumer to differentiate from among the competition unless something grabs their attention,” Slater says.
That meant the company needed to quickly expand its production lines. Ball has enough honey producers, but the African bottling facility wasn’t prepared to package the honey in various forms. It just takes much longer to expand a business’ capacity in an undeveloped country like Zambia, he says.
To bottle in North America, the African Bronze partners needed an organic-certified facility and a company that cared about the honey’s source. Whitney and Connell hunted down a bottler near Quebec City that could handle both the volume and variety of their new products. They are currently negotiating a deal with bottler Naturoney, which has an online tool for customers to trace any bottle’s honey back to the beekeeper — a feature important to African Bronze’s mission and marketing. The honey distributed to fundraisers is still bottled in Lusaka, Zambia, and the goal is to eventually create the new products — and more jobs and profits — in Zambia.
African Bronze Wild Honey’s Mission-Aligned Distribution
The African Bronze partners say they’ve found distribution channels that share their social values, including:
Fire Cider a tonic made of organic apple cider vinegar blended with horseradish, peppers, garlic and, of course, honey, is bottled and sold by young entrepreneurs based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Fire Cider African Bronze is the company’s fastest-growing product.
World Vision Canada, an organization helping children in poverty, features bottled African Bronze honey as an option in the nonprofit’s school fundraisers.
Whole Foods Market is African Bronze’s largest retailer. “We’re growing up, and so far Whole Foods has allowed us the room to do that,” Whitney says.
Brew the Change craft beer: African Bronze honey was used to create Brew the Change, a limited-release, all-Certified-B-Corporation collaboration beer released in May.
This article originally appeared as “Impact: Wild Honey That Creates Jobs in Africa” in the Summer 2016 issue of B Magazine.