My life in Uganda / Rwanda

Late 2000, an opportunity came for me to travel to Africa on a new adventure. Some investors wanted to venture into businesses in Africa and one of my friends recommended me for the job.


Africa is known as the Dark Continent and it is a place where many fear to tread. I had nothing to lose but everything to gain. After much discussion, a feasibility trip was planned for 14th Feb 2001. That was the turning point in my life. A choice I will never regret.


The discovery of honey farming was by accident. The initial direction was to sell fire extinguishers in Uganda, but somehow during the study trip, we had to drop the idea because majority of Ugandans did not have the financial capacity to purchase anything other than basic necessities. Hence, we reviewed our objectives and directions. Instead of selling things into Uganda, we decided to develop an industry and create jobs for the people. Uganda is gifted by nature. Acquiring produce from these fertile land for export was a more realistic approach.


Uganda Investment Authority suggested that I visit a bee farm. I was introduced to the Uganda Beekeepers Association and they showed me the potential of honey farming. During that trip, I got to meet up with a Professor from Germany who specialised in honeybees. He was engaged by United Nation to conduct research on the viability of the beekeeping industry in Uganda. He was sharing his positive findings about the honey industry with me. He said that Uganda and the East Africa region are one of the last frontiers where the bees are still resilient to viruses. Europe is actively sourcing honey from East Africa because the honey industry in developed countries are facing difficulties in honey production due to an epidemic known as CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. That got me thinking hard about this venture. It was indeed a very interesting opportunity to embark on.


Armed with all the information, I came back to share the possibilities with the investors. The initial study looked promising and the full study trip was approved two months later. The plan was that I based myself in Uganda for two years to establish the infrastructure before we deploy more manpower over. Since I knew nothing about the green culture, we retained the Professor as a consultant and advisor.

African bees are considered the most defensive species of the honeybees genre. During my first year into this business, the amount of bee stings I acquired were countless. So much so that I lost count of the number of stings.


The learning curve was painfully steep and I had to jump through hoops and hurdles. The two major challenges that I had to face was to understand the bees’ behavior and the culture of Ugandans. This business was not as easy as I first thought it was. Many more challenges awaited me.


Mid 2003, economic crunch struck and my investors had second thoughts about this venture. In order to reduce their financial risk, they decided to scale down their investment portfolio. Beekeeping was a long-term investment, and it would be a few more years before significant returns could be realized. Decision was made to let this venture go. Suddenly all financial support were discontinued.

I was not ready to give up what I had started. I had come so far learning the rope, teaching the villagers and building strong trusting relationships, I could not bear to see the village folks lose the opportunity to build a sustainable future for themselves. With the investors’ blessing I took over the company and sailed through the stormy sea..... alone.


With a weak financial standing, the journey got tougher. With God's grace, a friend saw my commitment and decided to assist me for a while. 


Recalling the first year after I took over the business, I survived on sweet potatoes and maize flour. Soon I was able to sell a bit of honey in the city to make ends meet.


In the course of my journey, my professor saw my determination and perseverance, he gave me the assurance that he would be there for me. It was indeed a gem to be able to get support from him. He was my motivation factor.


In 2005, my first batch of EU certified honey was selected to be supplied to a local supermarket. That was the time a Swiss banker, who had built an orphanage in Uganda, spotted my little jar of honey sitting quietly on the shelf. He was searching for good quality products to raise funds for the orphanage.


An agreement was established between the Swiss banker and I. For the first time in Uganda honey history, honey was exported to Switzerland. Everything went well and soon people came to know of our existence. The demand for our honey had increased.


The sense of achievement was indescribable when I was awarded the “PRESIDENT EXPORT AWARD (Gold Category)” in 2006 for raising the income level of 300 farmers.  This additional income enabled farmers to send their children to school.


Soon news spreaded like wildfire and people began to appreciate the honey from my farmers’ group. NGOs who were in food security programs began calling me for collaboration.


With the income coming in, I had an epiphany. My direction changed from the initial business idea of just getting the honey from the farmers, into becoming a social entrepreneur. This new direction was more rewarding, personally and spiritually.


2006 also saw the retreat of the rebels (Lord Resistance Army), that were terrorizing Northern Uganda. Insurgency had been going on in the North for the last 22 years. Villagers had to flee their villages and run further down south to take refuge in protected camps set up by UN. Soon peace prevailed and the government are urging the villagers to move back to their village to start life anew. The insurgency had caused much destruction and farmers had little or nothing to salvage. I saw honey farming a good starting point for these farmers to embrace.


I was blessed to be given an opportunity and permission from the local government to enter into this war torn zone to start my enterprise. Villagers were very cautious at first but with time and patience, I managed to gain their confidence and trust. Their positive response had given me much strength to move on.


One can only do so much. My capacity was limited. What was more important to me was to see the farmers able to provide a better living for their families thru honey farming.


I had never regretted a single day of my life in Uganda. My only wish now is to be able to repay the kindness to those who had helped me and for me to pay it forward.

A documentary of my work can be found here.


When paths cross, life can change.

 

Little Honey Man

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From the desk of Lesster Leow © 2017 for Little Honey Man

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