The country's vast terrain and a variety of wild bees make for an excellent honey, but poor production quality stops Ethiopia from cashing in on that. Italian beekeepers are helping locals improve honey harvest methods.
On the streets of Addis Abeba, the honey business is booming. A lot of the country's honey purchased is used to make the popular drink, Tej, a fermented honey wine.
Although some of the honey sold is impure and mixed together with sugar syrup, locals love it. Even the European Union has started to import Ethiopia's honey.
For three years now a group of Italian beekeepers has been working with several communities of Ethiopian beekeepers to teach them modern methods that can significantly improve their hives and honey. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, together with two Italian NGOs, has set up a training program at Conapi, the Italian beekeepers' consortium, in Monterenzio just outside Bologna.
Moreno Borghesi is one of the beekeepers teaching a group of Ethiopian beekeepers about the latest honey-based technologies.
"The project is about exchanging knowledge," explains Borghesi. "We want to get to know the Ethiopian beekeepers and improve the quality and quantity of their products. It's a meeting between two different worlds. Through dialogue and listening to each other, we can look for a new path for development."
600 consortium members from all over Italy currently send the honey they collect to Conapi where it's then quality controlled and bottled. Every batch brought in is labeled with the name of the producer, the type of honey, and the area and date of production. Conapi's team of experts analyze and bottle over 3,000 tonnes of honey per year, from 63,000 beehives nationwide.
Different types of beehives
Traditional Ethiopian beehives - called "kafo" - are long cylindrical baskets made of eucalyptus twigs and other woods. They are vastly different from modern breeding hives which look like rectangular boxes and can be easily opened to access the honeycomb.
Most Ethiopian beekeepers store their hives at home on the corner of the roof, collecting the honey at night-time. It's a system that's been used for centuries throughout the country but it does have some major drawbacks.
"The problem is when people harvest, they tend to use the traditional method of smoking the bees to sedate them," the project's Ethiopian coordinator, Zerihun Dessalgn told DW.
"Actually they are right to do this, because they don't have the right equipment to protect themselves and the bees in Africa, especially in Ethiopia, are quite aggressive. But, the quality suffers as a result."
Beekeepers in Italy use protective gear to avoid getting stung and mechanical means to extract the honey from the hives. The result is much purer honey.
When the knowledge transfer project began in 2007, it involved 110 beekeepers from just two Ethiopian communities. Now there are 500 beekeepers from eight communities and requests to participate from several more.
Exchange between Ethiopian beekeepers
"There's been a really big difference since we started this contact with Italians," says Alem, a beekeeper from Wukro in the north of Ethiopia, who is touring Conapi today. "We've improved both the quality and quantity of the honey. It's hard to imagine what a change there's been."
But the program isn't just good for the participants present in Italy. Sumoro, from southern Ethiopia, says the new national beekeepers' network, set up with the help of the Italians, has created a rare opportunity for interaction and dialogue between communities in distant regions that would never normally cross paths.
"At every meeting we discuss different issues," Sumoro told DW. "It's really important for us to learn from each other. Whenever we return from one of these trips we have a lot to share."
Co-ordinator Zerihun Dessalgn's says he's already seen tangible improvements in the lives of Ethiopian beekeepers and their communities.
"They used to produce one or two kilograms of honey, maybe more depending on the weather," he told DW. "With modern beehives they start harvesting 35 or 40 kilograms (77 to 88 pounds) of honey. That's a big change."
"They can also earn more money and they get the chance to send their children to school."
With the help of their Italian colleagues, the Ethiopian beekeeping network is now planning to open a shop to sell their products in the nation's capital, Addis Ababa. While the national honey drink Tej will never really lose its popularity, the country's beekeepers are hopeful that more consumers back home will soon develop a taste for their pure, high-quality honey too. And, of course, they hope it will also help improve export sales of Ethiopian honey.