This sidebar appears on pages 195-196, The Art of Mead Tasting and Food Pairing
The Kafa forest in Ethiopia is the origin of coffee. It is now an internationally-recognized biosphere reserve to conserve wild coffee genes. It is a particularly lush area of Ethiopia, but it is an ecosystem under heavy threat of deforestation. “The native forest cover in Ethiopia has shrunk from 40% to the low single digits within a century. This is mainly driven by the rural population increase, which has swelled from 35 million to 90 million in the last 35 years,” says Ayele Solomon, founder of The Honeywine Company of California. Solomon is a native of Ethiopia, whose agronomist family relocated to Kenya for work at a time when Ethiopia was both Communist and in the international news for a devastating famine. Even as a child, he resolved someday to return to Africa to do conservation work. The family eventually settled in Pleasanton, California. Solomon went on to study conservation and environmental economics at Berkeley, followed by an MBA.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest honey-producing countries. On a trip to Ethiopia in 2009, Solomon witnessed, in the Kafa forest, the traditional use of long, cylindrical bamboo or wood beehives (photo page 211). Bees typically inhabit only half of these enclosures. Because the combs must be crushed to extract the honey, the bees have to put their energy into rebuilding the combs before they can produce more honey, with the result that each hive may produce just 15 pounds of honey a year. The modern frame beehive (invented in 1852) enables a beekeeper to harvest 75 pounds of honey per hive per year for the same effort.
Further, the use of traditional hives keeps women out of the honey business due to cultural taboos against women climbing trees, and it’s dangerous work that causes deaths and injuries every year. As Solomon explains, “A self-enforcing cycle of poverty causes the Kafa area residents to cut more trees to sell as firewood and to clear for corn, coffee and other crops. Ironically, fewer trees mean less floral forage for bees, resulting in even less honey production, not to mention the carbon dioxide emissions that result when carbon stored in the trees is released upon burning.”
Solomon is a man on a mission to save the forests of Ethiopia, not through charity, but by empowering the inhabitants to earn a living through the production of honey. “You can’t just give people a little money and tell them to stop cutting trees. You have to create alternative livelihoods.” “I am eager to establish a commercial honey wine production facility that partners with beekeeping farmers in the southwestern forests of Ethiopia. While honey wine is produced and drunk world-wide, my native Ethiopia is, by far, the biggest consumer of this traditional drink. A key component of my project is converting traditional beehives into modern ones. Modern hives yield seven times more quantity and higher quality honey than traditional hives. The farmers who I partner with would own a share of the honey wine business and share in the profits.”
Bee d’Vine meads are now offered in 92 countries by Ethiopian Airlines. For more information about Solomon’s work in Africa, visit wildlifeworks.com.