Honey seems all set to replace the sugar bottle in homes, coffee houses and restaurants, thanks to the public becoming more health-conscious. Like Winnie the Pooh, entrepreneurs are hot on its scent, and eager to dip a finger into the sweet idea.
Take the case of Jigar Mehta and Paras Fatnani. Just last April, they formed Nectwork Foods LLP and launched a product called Honey Twigs - a specially-designed twig-like food grade laminate containing eight grams of honey, which can be had directly squirted into the mouth or squeezed without getting the fingers sticky.
“We wanted people to eat healthy and replace sugar with honey in their food and beverages. The company has been in retail full swing since July 2015,” says Paras.
He reveals that he became friends with Jigar in 2008 during their Master’s programme at the University of Westminster in London. Jigar had written a dissertation on honey that made him aware of the industry and the large business around it. He shared his discovery with Paras, and they agreed to start a honey business in the years to come.
Striking the iron when it’s hot
During their eight-month research, when the entrepreneurs conducted a survey of over 3,000 honey lovers across India, they found that although consumers questioned the quality of the honey they had they consumed it nonetheless because it was readily available. They also realised that people were fed up of the messy cost of eating honey - sticky hands and spillage, and the consequent constraints it posed while carrying it anywhere.
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The prefect solution for this, they thought, was Honey Twigs. Their Delhi-based company claims to clock a revenue of Rs 1.6 crore and produce about 30 lakh twig packs by the end of this year. The duo is also in talks with coffee outlets and five-star hotels to introduce its honey twig in their servings. It sees immense growth in the sector in the coming years.
Call of the honey industry
According to FFT 2016 edition of the Food & Drinks Market report, overall domestic demand for honey in India last year was about $513.05 million, which is up from 2014 when it was $345.19 million.
“The market for honey is growing, as the trend for healthy eating is on the rise. India’s exports of honey had slowed down but as we are producing higher quality honey in the country now, there is growth potential in that too. I estimate at least two-percent year-on-year growth in demand domestically and similar or higher numbers for export from India,” says Paras.
According to CSE, India ranks seventh in honey production, with around 65,000 metric tons of honey every year. The study also points out that beekeeping employs more than 2.5 lakh farmers in the country, a number that is increasing continuously.
Experts note that the beekeeping business has grown in parts of north India such as Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. Like other methods of farming, a lot depends on the weather. Bee farming season lasts for around six to seven months in north India, but just for a month in the South.
“In south India, the monsoon season has changed completely and rains have become unseasonal. Beekeepers in south India mostly depend on Kerala honey, which comes mainly from rubber trees. This honey is low quality and thus has less market,” says C. Jayakumar, another entrepreneur who converted his Class-VIII beekeeping hobby into full-time work.
In the honey business for 25 years now, he runs a venture called Shamee Bee Farm, which manufactures, supplies and trades in honey. “A person can start a beekeeping business for as low as Rs 20,000,” says Jayakumar, adding that a box of Indian bees costs around Rs 2,000, while one of Italian bees costs Rs 7,500.
Profit versus not-for-profit
Not everyone is in the business for profit though. Srikant Gajbhiye, founder of Bee The Change, started the social entrepreneurship venture in Maharashtra in 2013.
For him too it started as a hobby. After graduating from IIM-Kozhikode, Srikant took up a five-day hobby course on beekeeping at a government institute in Pune, and fell in love with the striped honey-makers.
Today, his organisation has trained over 700 farmers and forest populations. As part of its operations, the organisation meets farmers in rural areas and provides them with bee boxes and free training. And once people start beekeeping, it buys back the honey at a pre-determined price.
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“Ours is a not-for-profit outfit, and we generate income by selling this honey to retailers under our own brand,” says Srikant, stating that when bees are kept alongside farming activities, production increases between 20 and 200 percent.
Technological and government help
Over the years, the traditional beekeeping business has evolved in terms of technology.
“One example is the usage of the 'super' chamber for extracting honey. We can take around 70-80 kg of honey from a single hive if we use the super chamber. Usual hives without the super chamber give only about 10-15 kg. There is also a new queen bee-rearing technology,” says Jayakumar.
Amid possibility and growth in the business, the government is also providing schemes to beekeepers. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission gives loans with 30 to 40-percent subsidy. The horticulture department also processes loans to beekeepers for bee pollination. Under various schemes, a beekeeper can procure a bank loan up to Rs five crore.
With the rising interest of entrepreneurs in bee farming, and both government and individuals working at various levels and in different capacities to revive the practice and help increase the bee population in India, we can hope to see a new future for the bee as well as for honey in the coming years.