Livestock Research for Rural Development 26 (1) 2014 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

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Review of progress in Ethiopian honey production and marketing

G Y Legesse

Holeta Bee Research Center (HBRC),
Holeta. P.O. Box 22 Ethiopia


The beekeeping sub-sector has been an integral part of agriculture in Ethiopia. It has been contributing to the household income and poverty alleviation and national economy through export. The country has huge apicultural resources that made it the leading honey and beeswax producer in Africa. Moreover, Ethiopia is a country where apicultural research  is being conducted in a coordinated manner under the national agricultural research system. Hence, a lot of information has been gathered ondifferent aspects of the beekeeping. This is a review of various research results that are from published and unpublished papers over a long period of time in the course of the apicultural research.

It has been revealed that the country’s beekeeping subsector is mainly practiced using traditional basket hives with low productivity. However, attempts by various investigators and development actors showed that both the production and quality can be improved in terms of transforming the beekeeping system, processing and marketing. This review paper also tried to address both the domestic and international honey marketing and identified some of the major challenges that are obstacles to the possible maximization of benefits by producers and the whole national economy.   

Key words: beekeeping, beeswax, economics, employment


Ethiopia has a longstanding beekeeping practices that has been an integral part of other agricultural activities, where more than one million households keep honeybees (Kassaye 1990; Adgaba 2007). Beekeeping subsector is dominantly for small-scale farmers and is contributing significantly to the increment off-farm income and toward poverty reduction in rural areas (MoARD 2007). Honey is considered as cash crop and only about 10% of the honey produced in the country is consumed by the beekeeping households (MoARD 2003). The remaining 90% is sold for income generation (Hartman 2004). Beeswax was also in the list of Ethiopian agricultural export commodities, though it was only in 2008 that the country got the EU accreditation to export its honey to EU market (Assefa 2011). 

The beekeeping subsector is also creating job opportunities in both rural and urban areas (Assefa 2011). Recently, the Ethiopian government is intensively working in organizing jobless urban and landless rural youth and women to involve in them in bee equipment production and beekeeping activities. A significant number of people are currently engaged in honey and beeswax collection, “tej” (honey wine) making, honey and beeswax processing and marketing (MoARD 2007). 

Honey Production in Ethiopia


Ethiopia is known for its tremendous variation of agro-climatic conditions and biodiversity which favored the existence of  diversified honeybee flora and huge number of honeybee colonies (Adgaba 2007). It has the largest bee population in Africa with over 10 million bee colonies, out of which about 5 to 7.5 million are estimated to be hived while the remaining exist in the wild ( MoARD 2007; CSA 2009). This makes Ethiopia a leading in Africa and ninth in the world in honey production, respectively. Similarly, it stands first in Africa and third in the world in beeswax production (FAOSTAT data 2005).  

Traditional beekeeping is the major and oldest type of beekeeping practiced in Ethiopia for thousands of years (Kassaye 1990). It is characterized mainly by forest beekeeping that is common in forest covered south and southwest Ethiopia and backyard beekeeping which  is practiced in majority of the country (Adgaba 2007). Honey hunting is also common in few remote west and southwest parts of the country among traditional communities. Traditional beekeeping is mostly practiced with different types of traditional hives that are very much diversified in shape, volume and the materials used depending on the cultural differences and the local materials available for construction (MoARD 2007). Reports indicate that colonies in traditional beehives account for about 97% of the total hived honeybee population (CSA 2006; 2008; 2009). The productivity of traditional hives is extremely low and the average yield is only about 5–8kg/per colony/per annum (MoARD 2007). However, with this existing practices the annual honey production in the country is increasing and has reached quite higher than 53 thousand tons in 2012 (FAOSTAT data 2005; CSA 2006; 2008; 2009, 2012). 

Currently, intermediate or transitional beehives that are either the Kenyan top bar hives or  the locally made “chefeka” hives and frame box hives are being highly disseminated to the beekeepers by different GOs and NGOs. However, finance and gaps in operational skills have constrained the adoption of frame beehives by beekeepers (MoARD 2007). The number of movable frame hives in use until 2009 was estimated to be only 100,843 (GDS 2009). The annual average of honey yield obtained from “chefeka” hive is about 20kg, while that of the frame hive is about 30kg (MoARD 2007). But, in highly potential areas of northern and southwestern parts of the country more than the average yield from well managed colonies is commonly reported (personal communication). 

In Ethiopia, there are generally two honey harvesting seasons: the major one that lasts from October to November and the secondary one from April to June. However, in addition to these major harvesting periods, there are many small harvesting periods which depend on the type of flowering plants and rainfall patterns in different agro-ecologies (Adgaba  2007), which experienced beekeepers and local people easily associate the harvesting season with the botanical origin of honey in their locality (Legesse 2013).    

Characterization of Ethiopian honey

Honey from tropical Apis species show wider variations in composition (Crane 1975). In Ethiopia, where more than 400 plant species are already identified as major honey plants (Fichtle and Adi 1994), it is expected to have very diversified honey types. An investigation conducted in HBRC and Biochemical laboratory of the Ethiopian Authority of Standardization  to characterize honey samples from all over the country indicated that about 63% of 542 honey  samples had moisture content < 21%, those from highly humid areas having higher moisture content and those from low humid regions with lower moisture content. Earlier, Kassaye and Adgaba (1988) reported that honey samples collected from the whole country had moisture content ranging between 15.25% and 30.45%, honeys harvested from traditional hives being higher by 1.5–3% than those harvested from modern ones.  

More than 95%  and 80% of the samples were in the range of standards of total reducing sugar and acidity, respectively. The mineral (ash) content was relatively lower than the standards of many countries. Around 63% of the samples had HMF value below 40mg/kg. About 72% of the samples meet the diastase activity standards set by EU and FAO/WHO (Table 1). The diastase (amylase) activity of honey has relevance of indicating overheating, as it is heat sensitive (Crane 1990). However, recently complaints are coming from  Ethiopian honey exporters that the majority of their collections have diastase far below than the standards even for fresh and unprocessed honeys. This is an area of further investigations to understand the nature of these honey samples and their origin in terms of enzyme levels.

Table 1. Comparison between mean of quality state parameters of Ethiopian honeys with the already set national, regional and international standards


Moisture content, %

Total reducing sugars %

Sucrose content, %

Acidity meq/kg

Mineral content, %


Diastase activity in Goethe scale#































Latin America Codex





















Test samples

















Source: Adgaba 1996

# the last column modified with information from Crane 1990.

Processing and marketing of honey
Honey processing

Many tropical countries have successfully processed and marketed crude honeys using producers, cooperatives and small-scale processors (Crane 1990). Processing crude honey has been also proved in improving honey quality and better utilization of resources. It is possible, even honey properly harvested from traditional and transitional hive, to process and market to produce a better quality table honey, since a traditional hive honey is a good quality as far as it is in the hive (Townsend 1976). The inferior quality of honey comes from only mishandling of the product starting from harvesting through storage to marketing.  

One of the important steps in honey processing is preparation of pure honey free from beeswax debris and other non honey impurities. A study conducted at HBRC, using 54 crude honey samples, each weighing 5kg, collected from farm gates and local markets in high production areas: Wollega and Jimma areas in different honey harvesting seasons during 2004 and 2005. Honey samples from “Gojjam Berenda” and supermarkets in Addis Ababa were also included as different price indicators for both crude and table honeys. The study indicated that the percentage of pure honey obtained from crude honey varied from 34.4% to 95.0% with mean of 73.15% which depends on the amount of beeswax found in the honey, the age of the honey comb and its pollen content and other foreign materials. This is slightly higher than what Field (1989) reported that recovery of 30 to 60% pure honey from crude honey. Hence, it is possible to prepare pure and strained table honey from crude honey harvested from traditional and transitional hives. The study also revealed about 35% net profit could be obtained from sell of pure honey and pure beeswax after processing crude honey into pure honey and pure beeswax (Adgaba et al unpublished data). 

Locally processed and packed table honeys mostly suffer from granulation and problems associated with granulation like: coarse crystallization, different layers formation, fermentation and the resulting gas bubble production (Adgaba unpublished data). Crystallized honey ferments more readily than liquid honey, which is because when dextrose crystals are formed in the honey the liquid phase has high water content than the entire honey had when it was uniformly liquid (Townsend 1975). Hence, honey in uniformly liquid form is safer from fermentation by sugar tolerant yeasts (Crane 1990). Moreover, most local people also associate coarse honey crystals with adulteration of honey with table sugar. For best consumer appeals mostly the honey should be in a clear liquid form (Crane 1990).   

A study conducted in HBRC to retard the granulation/ crystallization of table honey and make it stay longer in liquid form indicated that storing temperature is an important factor among others (Townsend 1975; Adgaba and Negera  unpublished data). Well drained and strained honey samples kept in refrigerator (4oC) and cold room which is not directly exposed to sunlight with internal temperature of 10–15oC for 10, 20, 30 and 40 days, then brought to room temperature and kept on the same shelf under the same environmental conditions stayed in liquid state longer than samples kept in normal room temperature. However, honey has to be kept in cold room for more than 20 days as samples kept in cold room only for 10 days crystallized in 87– 102 days, similar to those kept in room temperature. Those honey samples kept for 20- 40 days in the cold room and for 10- 40 days in refrigerator showed a tendency to granulate very slowly, varying from 109 days to more than two and half years. Generally, it can be generalized that these storage situations can retard granulation of honey for 6–12 months as far as the honey is well strained (Adgaba and Negera  unpublished data).

The visual attractiveness of honey to consumers can be improved by facilitating rapid fine crystallization process and a term creamed (or spun) is applied to honey processed in such away (Dyce 1975). Finely granulated honey is preferable by many consumers also for its manageability in table since it is easy to spread on bread (Crane 1990). Therefore, in conditions where granulation is unavoidable it is better to process the honey in to creamed form. Rapid crystallization can be achieved by “seeding” cool liquid honey with 5% to 15% of a starter of finely granulated honey obtained in a previously controlled process (Dyce 1975). A study conducted in HBRC to prepare finely and uniformly granulated table honey of three widely produced honey types (Schiffleria abyssinica, Guizotia scabra and Croton macrostacheys) indicated that all the honey samples treated with 5%, 10%, 15% starter nuclei by weight and kept in the temperatures between 14oC and 16oC showed rapid crystallization. However, there were variations in degree of uniformity and texture of the crystals based on the amount of starter nuclei added. For honeys of S. abyssinica and C. macrostacheys, very fine and uniform crystallization was observed for samples mixed with >10% starter nuclei at 14oC and 16oC. However, very fine and uniform crystallization of honey of G. scabra was observed for samples mixed with >5% starter crystal nuclei and placed in the above temperatures. Therefore, placing the samples in the range of temperatures (14oC and 16oC) was equally suitable for formation of rapid crystallization of these honey types after mixing with 5%, 10% and 15% starter crystal nuclei. However, moisture content variation between 19% and 20% for all honey samples didn’t  affect fine granulation (Adgaba unpublished data). 

Honey marketing

In Ethiopian, only about 10% of the honey produced in the country is consumed by the beekeeping households (MoARD 2003). The remaining 90% is sold for income generation and of this amount, it is estimated that 80% is used for tej brewing (Hartman 2004). According to Assefa (2011), domestic honey consumption is increasing due to  highly increasing demand for tej, increased consumption of processed table honey in most urban areas and increased demand for honey in the local industries. 

The domestic honey market starts at the smallholder beekeepers level, who majorly sell crude honey to collectors in the nearest town/village markets (Abebe 2009; Belie  2009). Therefore, the producers are price takers. The collectors mainly pass the honey to the whole sellers in big cities and towns, though significant amount of honey they collect also goes to local tej brewers, processors and other consumers (Abebe  2009; Belie 2009; Assefa 2011). The whole sellers are largely situated in cities and big towns and they distribute the honey they get from collectors to retailers, tej brewers, processors and consumers. In some areas, beekeepers form producing and marketing cooperatives to cope with the market challenge they face. The cooperatives collect crude honey from their members and sell the semi-processed honey to processing companies and other intermediaries who buy in bulk and retail. However, in many cases the cooperatives lack proper collection, storage and transportation facilities and hence compromise the quality of the honey. They also have low business concept (market information gathering and analysis, promotion, client handling, etc) to be competitive (Belie 2009). 

The whole domestic honey market lacks proper structure and legality. It is of lengthy chain of actors that widens the access of producers to bigger and better paying markets. So, the beekeepers complain the business as not rewarding and even lacking market for their product, while the consumers see the ever increasing price of honey as unfair. Moreover, the market faces challenges like smuggling that pushes the legal actors out of market. In many cases, adulteration of honey has been a frustrating factor for both the producers and legal buyers and sellers as the traceability and accountability is far from practicability.  

It is not only the local honey market but also the export is increasing. The total volume of exported honey between 2000 and 2008 has been increasing recently; 1.5 tons in 2000, 275 tons in 2010 and more than 730 tons in 2012 (Assefa 2011; EEPA  2010, 2012). And the export trade of Ethiopian honey has reached more than 2.43 million USD (EEPA  2012). The involvement of honey and beeswax processing companies is also an important factor for the increased export volume. In 2008,  17 honey and beeswax processing companies were registered (Assefa 2011). The major importers of Ethiopian honey include Sudan, Norway, UK, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen and other European countries and USA (EEPA 2010, 2012).  The honey price at the domestic market is mostly higher than the international honey price which makes honey export less profitable in Ethiopia (Assefa 2011). Many of these companies have dropped out of the international honey trade and are now targeting the local markets which are still attractive (personal communication).



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Received 1 December 2013; Accepted 11 December 2013; Published 1 January 2014

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