Reducing Poverty in Zambia with One Small Sawmill

Born to Methodist missionaries, John Enright has spent his entire life living and working in Congo and Zambia as a pastor, teacher, pilot, and pioneer of sustainable economic development projects. He was raised speaking several tribal languages and has a thorough grasp of African culture. The Enrights were forced to flee Congo at the beginning of the war that began in 1998. They rebuilt their ministry near Ndola, Zambia, where they run an informal vocational school, children’s school, and pastor’s school, among other varied programs. Their Kafakumba training complex was built to be a central hub for positive change in Central Africa. 

John works alongside locals to build businesses that are profitable, reproducible, sustainable, and not fully dependent on his future involvement. Starting with an initial concept, John and his colleagues develop the business ideas themselves and work to create a solid model. John’s successful business projects so far are Tilapia fish farming, growing aloe vera, banana plantations, livestock, and a woodworking shop. Although John has experienced success with these projects, his honey project is defying all expectations for growth. The project is based on a co-op business model, and produced 100 tons of processed honey in 2014, with 200 tons estimated in 2015. Interestingly, the idea for the honey project grew out of the woodworking business. 

Utilizing Local Timber

A huge problem in Africa is the misuse of natural resources. Timber is being exported at an alarming rate with very little of the real timber value improving the local economies. In Central Africa, the biggest threat to timber stands is not foreign markets, however – it is charcoal production. “Starving villagers are far removed from the world wide environmental debate,” John reminds us. “They are forced to find every means possible of feeding themselves and their families. In order to convince the Zambians to preserve the forests and natural resources, we must demonstrate how it is their best interest, both long and short term, to preserve the world around them.” 

Another complication is that finished timber for use in construction or woodworking is traditionally processed by a few large and inefficient sawmills running outdated equipment. Poor infrastructure makes obtaining timber difficult and expensive for locals that lack disposable income. In the early 1980’s, the inventor of the Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, Don Laskowski, donated a sawmill to John’s mission work. The small sawmills install easily in remote areas and allow anyone to produce their own timber easily, efficiently, and locally.  John was able to establish a small workshop to produce local timber, doors, and windows that were affordable to the community, thus demonstrating that wood is a valuable resource people in Africa can use to better their lives significantly, without resorting to exporting the logs or converting them into charcoal. John’s idea for the honey project resulted from brainstorming what could become of the timber scraps from the woodworking shop. Again, he sought to find a higher purpose for an undervalued resource – scrap lumber could be used to build beehives.



Bee Sweet Honey Company

The beehive project was started more than eight years ago. They learned a lot in the first few years, like how to hang the hives in trees to reduce the risk of theft, and contamination by termites and honey badgers. They also worked on the design of the hive to maximize honey cleanliness and ease of collection. “What we’re trying to make is a beehive that is Africa-friendly,” John explains. “So the beehive is very different from a beehive you would see in America or Europe.” As they settled on a hive design that would meet the range of challenges they encountered, they began experimenting with how to organize the business model. Gradually, they developed a co-op business model to maximize the number of people who could benefit from the business, but also guarantee quality control and streamline distribution efforts of the final product. “When we started out, we made a lot of mistakes,” John recalls, “But we have slowly gotten to the point where the system works. We call it a micro-franchise. The villager does what he can do, we do what we can do, others are doing marketing, and everybody wins.”

Participants with Bee Sweet Honey Company are villagers who are given a set number of beehives, and their principle responsibilities are to bait the hive and ensure it is not stolen. John explains that the ideal number of hives to be operated by a single individual is 25, but that some are operating as many as 250 hives. The new beehives owner signs a contract which explains their mutual responsibilities clearly. John’s team visits the participating villagers twice a year in spring and autumn to harvest the honey and pay the participants based on the quantity of honey harvested. In 2014, more than $100,000 was paid out to participants. More will be paid out in the future as new hive owners bring in their first harvests, and others grow their existing number of hives. “We do not do beekeeping; we only do honey-gathering,” John shares. “As long as there are bees going in and out, you harvest it twice a year. It is a simple system, but then it allows them to send their kids to school, to put a tin roof on their house, and to have a decent living.” 


Africa-friendly Beehive Production

John employs 18 full-time workers in the beehive production workshop. Each hive costs approximately $20 to produce, all costs considered. The wood used for the beehives comes from the wood workshop and from cheap scrap logs that are locally sourced. The logs are split in half on the Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmill and then run through resaws to produce boards of consistent thicknesses. The fresh boards are then cut on chop saws to the required lengths. John insists that the importance of the small sawmill cannot be overemphasized. “All of this stems from the fact that the Wood-Mizer sawmills are giving us quality boards, cut to specific specifications, which allows us to make these hives. None of this would be possible without the sawmill. It is an essential link in a chain that has now become a substantial benefit to thousands of people.”


During the dry season, the boards are laid outside in the sun to dry out for two days, and then they are placed in a vertical jig and are glued on-edge to form the side panels of the hive. “The bees don’t care if it’s pretty,” John laughs as he demonstrates the gluing method. The panels are trimmed to their final dimensions on a table saw. Then the various components are packaged for shipment. Final assembly of the hives is done after shipment to reduce shipping costs. A metal jig is included for easy assembly of the hives on site, and then the assembled hive is secured together with recycled metal wire. The hook that hangs the hive from the tree branch is made of recycled rebar sourced from nearby mining companies. A simple rope pulley system enables the hives to be raised and lowered from the ground, eliminating climbing.

Growth and Future

Although Bee Sweet has been producing honey for their local Zambian market for several years, they hope that real growth and greater profits will start when they obtain organic certification for their honey from the European Union, opening up international markets for the honey. As of the summer of 2015, more than 10,000 individuals from all over northern Zambia are participating, and more than 50,000 beehives are now in the field. They have found that each hive will produce approximately 33 pounds of honey annually, which adds up to a lot of honey by the end of the year. Over one hundred tons were harvested in the spring of 2015, and it is hoped that much of it will be sold internationally, the remainder will be sold locally for lower prices. “The honey project is unique,” John remarks. “It allows a very simple person to produce organically certified honey that can be sold all over the world. [They are] now creating organic honey, and organic wax and is being paid accordingly – not charity. Very exciting! Our share of the revenue goes into the foundation that then launches projects somewhere else and many other projects that we have launched – schools, clinics, and things like that.”


Currently, John’s workshop is capable of producing components for more than 200 hives each day when timber supplies are available. They would like to be able to produce 500 a day, so they have purchased a new Wood-Mizer TVS twin-vertical sawmill that will help them double capacity. “We would like to see other organizations take this technology,” John shares. “I could see the beehive project becoming a huge creator of wealth, empowerment, and a huge blessing throughout Africa.” John shares that that are groups currently replicating the honey project in Honduras, Ethiopia, Congo, and Malawi. They are currently experimenting with several other business ideas designed for rural people. People who do well with the beehive program can then expand into additional business programs. “Africa needs people to realize they are living in the garden of Eden,” John says. “This is a place where they can not only survive, but thrive! People are catching that vision.”

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