Imagine 3,000 bees buzzing around a farm, busy at work—pollinating and increasing crop production, and helping the small farmer increase his income. That is the basic idea of the social enterprise, Under the Mango Tree (UTMT).
Started by Mumbai-based Vijaya Pastala, 46, two years ago, UTMT is now working with 1,500 farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Pastala tells Lounge how the organization trains and funds farmers to put up bee boxes, teaching them how to transfer bees from their natural habitat into a box. UTMT estimates that about 20 bee boxes can increase crop production by 35-45%. In addition, the organic honey that is produced can be sold through retail stores and UTMT’s subscription programme, The Hive, a community-based bee-keeping initiative to support, train and partner with bee-keepers. Edited excerpts:
How did you think of bee-keeping in the first place?
The impact of bees on farming is more than you can imagine. Agriculture is the primary source of income for 80% of India’s rural poor. Declining agricultural productivity is what forces farmers into cycles of debt or abandoning farms to migrate to cities. The main aim of UTMT is to increase crop productivity for small tribal farmers. And we decided to let natural pollinators, the bees, help us. The extra income from marketing the honey is a bonus for farmers. We work only with farmers who earn less than Rs20,000 a year.
Vijaya Pastala interacting with a bee keeper.
UTMT is almost two years old. Tell us about the journey.
We started in January 2009, and it’s been a sort of an upside-down journey. We looked at the market development first and then the back-end production. That’s because we realized that the supply is already there. In the beginning months, we worked with other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and partners who are already producing organic honey and tried to market them. After we learnt that sustainable honey harvesting is a possibility, we began by training and funding farmers to put up bee boxes in their farms. We now work with 1,500 farmers in the districts of Dang, Valsad and Narmada in Gujarat, and Nashik and Thane in Maharashtra. Each bee box costs Rs2,200, for which the farmer has to pay Rs400, and we support him with the rest.
How is UTMT honey different?
We sell what is called the single flora gourmet honey. Honey comes from the nectar of flowers. So different flora produces honey that is typical in flavour, consistency and colour to that flora. For instance, there’s Orange Blossom honey. There is a honey called Desert Bloom, which comes from the forests of Ranthambore (Rajasthan)—it is a blend of herbal flora of the region like mahua, palash, jamun, neem and karanj. Similarly, there’s Himalayan Flora honey or the Sweet Clover honey or the Litchi honey from the orchards of Muzaffarpur’s Terai lands. It has a melt-in-the-mouth, fruity flavour. Our gourmet honey range spans over 14 varieties and is priced from Rs150-160 for 200g and Rs300-325 for 500g.
Tell us about bee behaviour.
We work with indigenous Indian bees called Apis cerana indica, while the government of India’s preferred bee is an Italian hybrid. The Italian bee is a honey-producing bee which produces 70-100kg in a box, but it is expensive, high-maintenance, migratory and more suited to larger farms. The reason why we work with the Indian bee is because it is easily available, resistant and adaptable. Comparatively, it produces much less honey (14-20kg in a box), but for smaller farms, it works better. They can be easily be transferred from their natural colony into boxes.
What are bee doctors?
Bee doctors are master trainers. When we work with farmers, we choose the more progressive farmers and give them long-term intensive training about bee-keeping—everything from extraction to collection. One master trainer supports 30 farmers. A farmer who’s undergone bee-keeping training sees a Rs4,500-5,000 increase in his annual income.
What is the biggest challenge you face?
The market is the biggest challenge. There are already established players in the market, even though our gourmet honey is quite exclusive. We retail through stores like Eco Corner in Lower Parel and Navdanya (Andheri West), both in Mumbai, or the Tutto Bene Delicatessen in Pune. We also sell directly and send through couriers. The Hive is our subscription programme, as part of which we send bottles to members monthly. We’re trying to export, but haven’t been successful yet. Indian honey, by rule, is banned in foreign countries because of antibiotics, metal residue and pesticide issues. But, obviously, bigger players export and we’re not sure how. And even though we are organic, and follow fair-trade practices, we haven’t been able to export yet. But we’re trying to get into other spaces like lip balms and baby products.