In a Ugandan highland, beekeeping
has become a mainstay—and a passion
The women of Kikoka village are marked by the climate of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. The increasingly erratic rain that has made crop-growing a lottery fell so heavily in November 2021 that the river burst its banks. Eight people died, including two children whose bodies have never been found.
The 10 beehives swept from the trees by the flooding Kuruhe River were a footnote to the human tragedy. But beekeeping has become a significant part of the community’s efforts to rebound from the flood and meet the here-and-now challenge of a changing climate.
The Kikoka Women Development Association has been operating since 30 women signed up in 2017 to seek better ways to support their families. According to chairperson Harriet Kato, the group now has 69 collectively owned beehives. Last year alone, the earnings from selling honey collected from the hives was UGX 3 million (about USD 800).
“We used some of our savings to go into poultry, with 30 chickens. Now we have also bought four goats and an acre of land, and are exploring how to carry out goat rearing—all thanks to the sales of honey,” Kato says.
The progress in Kikoka is mirrored in other villages across Kasese, a mountainous district near Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as people have embraced beekeeping as a way to adapt to climate change. As well as rainstorms causing flash floods and soil erosion, families must contend with higher temperatures and unexpected droughts that can destroy the crops that traditionally provide people with their livelihoods.
Kato’s association is one of 20 women’s groups that have received assistance from the Rwenzori Mountain Development Association (REMODA), a non-governmental organization focused on raising living standards in the region. Since 2010, REMODA has trained about 200 women in sustainable beekeeping and environmental conservation, including how to build modern wooden hives, where to locate them, and how to harvest the honey, honeycomb and wax.
‘We train women because they are a disadvantaged category in the community,” says Kasereka John Muranga, REMODA’s executive director. “They are the backbone of livelihood and food security for their families yet some of them are single mothers. Climate change affects them most since they are involved in farming for survival. Training them in beekeeping was to ensure that they find an alternative source of livelihood.’
In Rugendebala village, Harriet Mbambu blames changing weather patterns for the low soil moisture and troublesome pests that are hurting crops of maize, beans, soy and sorghum on her family’s four acres of land.
“The harvest in my community will continue to suffer because I can see that the weather patterns and the environment are changing,” Mbambu says.
To offset those impacts, the 32-year-old joined the Baghuma Self Help Group, another beekeeping group for women. As well as training from REMODA, the group’s 20 members have received wooden hives and protective clothing from Liberty Development Foundation, another NGO.
Every week, members of the group aim to deposit UGX 5000 (about USD 1.40) of their income from selling honey with the group treasurer. The women can borrow from the pool of savings and pay back at low interest rates. At the end of the year, each member receives a payout from which they must buy at least two more beehives or pay school fees.
Mbambu says she and her husband quickly mastered the skills of beekeeping. They have reserved half an acre of their land just for the bees (they have 20 privately owned hives), with crops and livestock on the other 3.5 acres.
They have overcome superstition. “In our community, people used to think that if women go to the bees there will be no more honey. But now that myth has gone, my wife can go to the beehives and there is no problem,” Mbambu’s husband Samuel Muranga said.
And they have been creative. Planting mangoes in the reserve has provided nectar and shade for the bees, while gaining fruit and a better honey yield for themselves. In dry periods, they put water in small troughs in the apiary for the bees to drink, because a lack can result in lower honey production.
Boosted by these techniques, the family is now harvesting about 200 kilos of honey and earning an extra UGX 2.4 million (USD 630) every year—more than they get from growing crops.
“With this extra income, we have been able to pay school fees for our daughter Loyce, who is now in secondary school,” Mbambu says. “She loves beekeeping, and she helps with the work during her holidays.”
Her husband has also caught the beekeeping bug: “He is very passionate about the bees and helps with the harvesting. Sometimes I am a bit scared to go near them, because we don’t have enough protective gear.”
After reserving a portion for their own consumption—some people consider it medicinal— the honey is sold to the Bunyangabo Beekeepers Cooperative. Workers from the cooperative come and collect the honey from the beekeepers, reducing transport costs for the farmers.
The cooperative filters and processes the honey and packages it in plastic containers of various sizes, each clearly branded as “Rwenzori Mts. Honey”. It also sells candles made of beeswax.
Beekeeping families in the region are keen to expand their honey business but face obstacles. Commonly cited challenges include a shortage of protective coveralls, boots, and gloves. More durable wooden beehives and strong stands to place them on are also sought.
And even the oldest beekeepers want to keep on learning.
Eseza Nangozi, a 60-year-old grandmother in Rugendabara village, keeps 10 hives to offset her fears that the unpredictable rains and droughts will erode her soil and wreck her crops of banana, sorghum, maize and millet. But even the bees are affected by long dry spells, when the flowering plants on which they feed as well as the water they need to drink can be in short supply.
“Beekeeping is my alternative source of livelihood,” Nangozi said. “I have learned how to take care of my bees, but things are changing, there are always new developments, and I want to know about them.”
Field research and text: Written by Stephen Graham with research and contributions from Godfrey Mwesigiye and Joel Wako Markmorris for ARCOS, and Kasereka John Muranga for REMODA
Photos and illustrations: Original photos by Christian Mukuma for ARCOS, photo artwork by Zoï Environment Network
Web design: Zoï Environment Network
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