“The current pandemic has thrown many people off balance, including our local beekeepers. For us, at Tropical Hives we persevered, as our honey is mainly sold via our website and promoted via social media. On the flip side, we had to cancel our gardening workshops for the rest of the year. We have some restructuring to do, but I am giving myself time and space to get it done.”
These are the words of Nikita Legall, Founder and Managing Director of Tropical Hives and AhGrowTT in Trinidad & Tobago. Like many other entrepreneurs, she must revisit her business strategies to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and navigate the new normal. Despite these challenges, she remains in good spirits and continues to serve her community of honey lovers and agriculture enthusiasts.
Challenges, however, are nothing new to Nikita. She has had her fair share of trials that tested her commitment and resilience. However, she remains committed to her two ventures.
Tropical Hives specializes in honey production and the distribution of honey, hive products, and apiary services. AhGrowTT is a community that promotes knowledge of sustainable agriculture and home gardening. To put Nikita’s journey into context one should appreciate the complex history of honey production in Trinidad & Tobago.
A Complex History Of Honey Production In Trinidad & Tobago
The history of beekeeping and honey production in Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) is as complex as the pollen profile of the honey itself. Honey production has been part of the agricultural landscape in T&T since the 1900s. Records show that the first government apiary was established in the country’s capital by the Imperial British Government. Legislation surrounding beekeeping prohibits the importation of honey and is thought to be a way to protect against pests and diseases as well as protect the quality of honey being produced on the island.
According to records, Trinidad and Tobago’s honey has won over 58 awards at prestigious trade shows like the National Honey Show in London between 1987 and 2000. However, in 2001, the European Union (EU) began to enforce the submission of a Residue Monitoring Plan. This is required from all non-EU countries wishing to export honey into the European Union. With no testing facilities available locally, and international testing proving to be cost-prohibitive, beekeepers could no longer participate in these trade shows or export to the lucrative market in the EU.
Unfortunately, beekeepers are still advocating for the introduction of a testing facility in T&T. It is unclear if one will be introduced soon. Despite these and other challenges, the beekeepers on this Caribbean island are very passionate about their profession, their honey, and of course about their bees.
An Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Beginnings
The passion for beekeeping is usually passed down through generations as a large portion of apiaries in Trinidad & Tobago are family-run businesses. This was not the case for Nikita, as neither she nor her parents had any background in beekeeping or agriculture.
Nikita’s career path started in engineering as she obtained a BS in Chemical Engineering and a postgraduate diploma in Environmental Engineering from the University of the West Indies. Her destiny was forever altered when she decided to try something “new” and do a free bee-keeping course offered by the local Ministry of Agriculture. After completing the course, she pitched her beekeeping business idea at a Business Incubator competition. To her surprise, she won the competition and got her first round of funding for her business. “Winning this competition was really my first justification that I could do this as a business and be successful at it,” Nikita recounts.
The Reality Of The Business
Nikita admits that running an apiary was a lot harder than she expected. “Sometimes we start things thinking that we know how everything will turn out,” she shares. “A lot goes into learning the craft of beekeeping and with agricultural entrepreneurship, you have to be prepared for the unexpected,” she adds.
In addition to being a novice in the honey industry, there were very few apiaries founded, owned, and run by women. “Most beekeepers are men and the larger apiaries tend to be generational. There are women throughout the value chain and that often gets overlooked, and maybe even undervalued in my opinion. Wives are supporting their husbands and daughters managing sales etc.” she explains.
Being a part of the Business Incubator allowed her to have mentors which she credits as being critical to her success, along with her persistence and determination to succeed.
Navigating Industry Challenges
There’s a lot of support from local consumers who mainly purchase honey as a sweetener for commercial and residential use. Byproducts of honey such as beeswax are also used in a variety of industries, but on a smaller scale. There are, however, many challenges within the industry that the average consumer is simply unaware of.
Apart from the lack of testing, Nikita believes that challenges like the adulteration of honey and the overuse of pesticides need to be addressed. Adulteration can occur in several forms: tainting, honey laundering, pollen removal, and adulteration from the source.
The most common kind that occurs in the industry is tainting with foreign substances and honey laundering. Honey is tainted when producers add foreign substances like corn syrup, molasses, rice syrup, or water. Honey laundering occurs when honey is illegally imported and repackaged to pass as locally produced honey. This is very dangerous as the importation of these honey can also lead to the importation of pests and diseases that can negatively impact the local honey bee population.
Irresponsible pesticide use is also a challenge. “Many farmers use broad-spectrum pesticides to kill the insects that are bad for their crops, Nikita states. “However, bees are insects, and they are often affected by the use of these pesticides,” She adds. “There was an issue where one farmer sprayed, and someone’s apiary was reduced from 50 to five boxes. That is a devastating loss for any beekeeper to recover from,” she laments.
Separating The Real From The Fake
To circumvent these challenges, beekeepers have become a close-knit community. They are careful who they work with to ensure that they have some level of quality control and they keep an eye out for counterfeits. They also make the listing of registered apiaries public and they continue to educate the consumers on ways to identify fake honey.
For the average consumer, spotting a counterfeit may not be easy as it is already packaged. There are simple at-home tests that can help point out the real from the fakes. Some of these include heating the honey; real honey will caramelize quickly while artificial honey will become foamy and bubbly and will never caramelize. Another way is to test by dropping the honey in water. Real honey does not mix and drops to the bottom of the glass in a lump. Fake honey will begin to dissolve quickly because of the presence of added sugars.
If you have some bread handy you can test for authenticity by spreading the honey on a slice of bread. Real honey will harden in a couple of minutes. If the honey is fake the bread will become soggy as the mixture soaks through.
The Benefits Of Honey
Taking the time to ensure that your honey is the real deal may take some effort, but it is worth it. Honey has been a part of traditional medicine for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties for over a millennium. It is reported that the ancient Egyptians used it to help heal infected wounds and embalm the dead. In ancient Greece, it was often prescribed for pain, acute fever, tuberculosis, and even baldness. Today, honey is a staple in many homes and restaurants and is used as a natural sweetener.
Honey is also a natural humectant and thus is a favored additive in cosmetics due to its ability to retain moisture. Globally, many have seen an increase in demand for honey as consumers become more conscious of the need for healthy living and a boosted immune system.
Currently, there isn’t a specific daily recommended allowance for honey, however, it should be regarded as a sugar so you should be guided accordingly.
From Profitability To Sustainability
This observation of indiscriminate pesticide use and its effect on bees led Nikita to her second venture. She began to question the possible effects that these chemicals could have on humans. According to research the effects can be acute and range from allergic reactions, nausea, headache, and even loss of consciousness. Long-term toxic pesticide exposure has been linked to asthma, depression, the development of Parkinson’s disease, and some cancers.
Nikita created a home garden where she grew foods with zero chemical pesticides and loved the results. She tried natural pest control methods like the use of neem oil and marigold sprays and biological agents like ladybird beetles. She also tried composting as a way to produce natural fertilizers. This, she found had the added benefit of significantly reducing the waste produced by her household.
Nikita began sharing her story on social media and this attracted a lot of interest and questions. She realized that there was a whole community of people who were interested in doing the same thing. She began a blog that morphed into AhGrowTT, a platform that teaches others to grow their food, and sustainable living.
The classes teach the basics of home gardening, different methods of composting, and natural pest management. She believes both businesses complement each other and most importantly she is making a positive impact on the planet.
Looking To The New Normal
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some honey producers have seen a boost in sales. Nikita reasons this to individuals becoming more concerned about their health and an increased interest in home baking. Nikita is cautious in saying that this increase will be sustained. She notes that restaurants, which are a big market for honey producers, have reduced their menu offerings or some have gone out of business.
Honey also has a longer shelf life than fresh produce so an initial boost may taper off. She admits that most of her sales were always done via her website or social media channels, so a consumer shift away from physical stores to digital purchasing platforms did not adversely impact her business. One major change she does note is the added safety protocols adhered to from production to delivery.
As for agriculture, Nikita has noticed an increase in the public’s interest. Especially in the area of home gardening and supporting local produce. “This generated more interest on our page and we have been doing our best to provide the information through our social media platforms,” Nikita adds.
Regarding the conversation around sustainability, Nikita feels that more action is needed.
“Home gardening is a step in the right direction. Not just for growing your food but for your general wellbeing. Gardening is an activity that the whole family can participate in. It can be used as a tool to improve mental health, reduce anxiety, and relieve stress. Feeling angry? Go pull some weeds. When you are done you would have probably forgotten about what you were mad about in the first place,” Nikita states.
Nikita continues to advocate for the development of a National Pesticide Use Policy. Without it, there is no standard of accountability for producers. She believes that there is a need for more education among all stakeholders and determined pursuit of meaningful solutions. Sometimes when there is a solution to one problem, it often causes problems in another area. She stated that one example occurred when the Ministry of Health embarked upon a mosquito spraying program on the onset of the Chikungunya and Zika outbreaks. These sprays not only killed the mosquitos, but they also killed bees in the process.
She believes that a more holistic search for answers can result in better solutions for everyone. According to the World Health Organization, in some territories, alternate solutions to spraying such as the use of infertile males have been proposed to control the mosquito population.