19 Aug 2013
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Bees Make a Sweet Deal for African Farmers

Yusuf Keshavjee's (OPM 17, 1991) Honey Care Africa is generating economic, social, and environmental value through beekeeping.
by Garry Emmons

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Some years ago, Yusuf Keshavjee (OPM 17, 1991) was driving near Lake Victoria in Kenya when he noticed vendors by the roadside selling honey. Not an unusual sight in Africa, but it got Keshavjee to thinking about issues facing local farmers: branding, finding markets, and adding value to their products.

At the time, Keshavjee was the head of the Aga Khan Foundation in East Africa, a major development agency, and believed that the best way to sustain health and education initiatives was through income generation and other inputs. In 2000, working with Farouk Jiwa, a social entrepreneur, and two other cofounders, Keshavjee launched Honey Care Africa (HCA)—with Jiwa as director—to encourage beekeeping as an opportunity to enhance farmers' incomes.

"From its inception, HCA has had an explicit triple bottom-line agenda, with an emphasis on generating economic, social, and environmental value simultaneously through its activities," Keshavjee explains. "It is now embarking on a massive investment with equity partners and scaling up its activities."

HCA, in partnership with a number of local NGOs and international development and financial institutions, started manufacturing hives and offering village-level demonstrations and training. A social enterprise that has won multiple international awards, Honey Care also provides a guaranteed market at fair trade prices for the honey produced by small-holder farmers. It collected the honey at the farm gate and paid for it on the spot, then processed, packed, and distributed the honey and related products for sale in supermarket chains. To date, the company has helped more than 9,000 small-scale beekeepers (over 45 percent of them women) and its business model is being replicated in other African countries. For many participants, the income earned from honey production often makes the difference between living below or above the poverty line.

When not helping his fellow Kenyans boost their incomes and satisfy their palates, Keshavjee also makes sure they look sharp: He is the major shareholder of White Rose Drycleaners (established over 60 years ago), East Africa's largest chain of dry-cleaning franchises. White Rose was one of the first companies in East Africa to offer equity to its staff, assist company retirees who were establishing their own businesses, and provide training to new potential entrepreneurs to become franchisees. Keshavjee is also involved in a large affordable housing project in Thika, on the outskirts of Nairobi. He is bullish on Kenya, noting the country has "a youthful, well-educated population and is now called 'Silicon Savannah,' with a new technology city being built close to Nairobi."

In 2010, Keshavjee was one of four representatives from Kenya to be invited by Barack Obama to Washington for the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, "to deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world."

Asked about Africa's future, Keshavjee says, "The greatest hope for the continent is the opportunity offered by the creation of regional economic groupings that will provide much larger markets than in the past. The East Africa Community alone has a population of over 130 million people with a growing middle class in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. We hope to become the world's newest 'tiger states.' Bureaucracy and lack of appropriate infrastructure are challenges, but most African countries are now committed to policies to address these issues and make their economies friendlier toward business and investors."

Despite all his private-sector activity, Keshavjee spends the bulk of his time on philanthropy, earning numerous awards and commendations for his service. Honey Care Africa, just one of those socially oriented initiatives, has the stated goal of impacting one million individuals by 2020. Says Keshavjee, "I'd like to play my small part in reducing the inequalities of income on this new-frontier continent. I'd like to inspire youthful entrepreneurs and the creation of social enterprises."

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