Oku White Honey, Cameroon
Some of the world’s most famous products owe their success to the region they are produced. Whether it is tequila from Mexico, Italian parmigiana cheese, or Colombian coffee, the unique geographical features of where these products are produced results in their equally unique qualities. Geographical Indications (GIs) are a form of intellectual property (IP) right that protects such products, and they have helped spur economic development (Yale University, 2003).
While Africa is endowed with some of the richest ecosystems in the world (World Bank, 2012), GIs in the continent have yet to take off (African Commission/European Commission Workshop on Geographical Indications, 2011). However, with the help of the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI), a small number of products from various African countries have been registered as GIs as a way to increase market reach and expand the livelihood of producers (Agence Française de Développement (AFD), 2013).
One of the first three products is Oku white honey from the Republic of Cameroon (Cameroon), which is produced in the nationally protected forest of Kilum Ijim near Mount Oku (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), 2013). As one of Cameroon’s first registered GIs, producers and cooperatives involved in the production of Oku white honey are hoping that their product can eventually compete on an international level with the likes of other well-known GIs and spur economic development.
The originality of Oku white honey depends on the unique ecosystem of the forest in which it is made (AFD, 2014). In general, there are two ways in which honey is procured: harvesting it from wild bees or using the science of domesticating bees, which is known as apiculture (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2009). While the common image of apiculture might be a beekeeper (one who practices apiculture) clad in a protective suit harvesting honey on a bee farm, there is another type of apiculture that places artificial hives in the forest (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014). Honey and other products harvested from these beehives are considered to be non-timber forest products, or NTFPs.
In the north-central Adamaoua region of Cameroon, forest apiculture has been practiced for centuries. Instead of managing beehives in one location, those practicing apiculture in this region move their beehives to select points in the Kilum Ijim forest. But why do they do this instead of keeping all of the beehives in one location for easy access and harvesting? The answer lies within the specific geographical features and ecosystem of the Adamaoua region and the Kilum Ijim forest, which harbor plants that when pollinated by the bees result in honey that yields unique characteristics.
Rising up to 2,000 meters above sea level, the Kilum Ijim forest is a rich, diverse ecosystem covering over 20,000 hectares (CIRAD, 2013). With over 150 melliferous plant species (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014), which is a plant that can be collected by insects and turned into honey (FAO, 2011), the amount of rainfall, sunlight, temperature, altitude, and soil quality in the Kilum Ijim forest all serve to influence the end product (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014).
Two plants that yield white flowers in particular - schefflera abyssinica and nuxia congesta - work in combination with the environment help give Oku white honey its unique properties, especially its creamy white color (Slow Food Foundation, 2014). Abundant in the Kilum Ijim forest, they are pollenated by the bees that local beekeepers have moved throughout the forest. When the bees return to their hives to produce honey, the effects of these two plants help create an exceedingly rare (according to a study by the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development) and sweet, white, creamy honey that is slightly acidic with hints of grape juice and citrus (Slow Food Foundation, 2014).
Beyond these two species, the bees pollinate many other flowers in the forest that have been used by the local population for centuries (The Farmer’s Voice, 2012), bringing additional beneficial properties to these plants that are used in medicinal or herbal capacities, thus making them more effective and desirable (FAO, 2011).
Apiculture as practiced in the Adamaoua region has been taking place for at least 150 years and is an important part of family and community traditions (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014). This traditional knowledge extends not only to the practice of apiculture, but the use of honey and beehives. Specifically in the rural areas of Adamaoua, honey is well-known for it medicinal purposes to treat coughs, wounds, skin infections, asthma, stomach ailments, and other skin disorders (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014).
Traditional knowledge on how to make beehives, collect the bees, and where to place the beehives in the forests is extremely important to the quality of Oku white honey. Producing it is not easy and it is a practice that has been passed down orally within families and communities (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014). A tedious process, hives are first built from locally available resources and then taken to grassland areas to capture swarming bees, which can be a dangerous job (according to Bang George, manager of Oku Honey Cooperatives).
Between September and April the handmade hives are colonized with the captured bees (Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, 2014), which are then moved to the forests between November and March. The specific harvesting period must be closely followed, after which the honey is taken to the processing unit to be inspected and prepared for sale (according to Bang George, manager of Oku Honey Cooperatives).
Long an important commodity in Cameroon, the traditional knowledge on how to make Oku white honey is a skill that is not only passed down through generations but is also unique to the region (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014).
One important way to protect this traditional knowledge is through a protected geographical indication (PGI), which links the region and traditional knowledge with the product (Michael Blakeny, Australian National University, 2012). Thanks to a PGI, producers are able to add value to their products, which can be sold in niche markets to customers who are willing to pay a premium, and in turn bring in higher prices and an increase in producers’ livelihoods (Bibi de Lange, Wageningen University and Research Centre).
With funding from AFD, support from CIRAD, and implementation by OAPI (FAO, 2011), Cameroon was the first country in Africa to have PGIs registered, of which Oku white honey was one of the first registrations made in 2013, with up to sixteen countries recognizing the Oku white honey PGI (CIRAD, 2013). With the PGI in place, only farmers, producers, and cooperatives working in the Oku region are allowed to produce and market their honey as official Oku white honey.
To ensure a consistent high level of quality, the PGI enumerates specific standards for how Oku white honey is produced. Beehive construction, designated locations in the forest for beehive installation, and required equipment and practices for harvesting honey all have requirements that must be followed (according to Bang George, manager of Oku Honey Cooperatives). Once the honey is transferred from the forest, specific processing techniques are also adhered to. Such practices include refraining from harvesting during rain, ensuring the use of clean and dry buckets to transfer the honey, and processing the honey in a prescribed, traditional method.
Speaking to the Cameroon Tribune at a regional seminar on GIs, Ayite Juliette, OAPI Deputy General Manager, said “Placing a product under such protection reduces the likelihood of piracy, fraud, and counterfeiting, but also significantly boosts farmers’ incomes.”
An essential aspect of the Oku White Honey PGI is the development of a brand that is synonymous with rare, high quality honey unique to a specific region. Unlike Penja Pepper, which is another PGI from Cameroon and is well-known in the international culinary world, Oku white honey has been sold predominantly within Cameroon (V.J. Ingram, University of Amsterdam, 2014), so the development of the brand is important for the success of the product and other resulting NTFPs.
Because of the domestic focus (which is typical for honey originating from African countries) - especially until registration of the PGI - developing a singular brand for products such as Oku white honey, or other African apiculture products, has proven difficult (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2006). Producers and cooperatives such as the Oku Honey Cooperative (OHC) hope that, with the help of the PGI, the product and brand will be able to expand its market internationally (The Farmer’s Voice, 2012).
Further improvements are also required in packaging, training capacity, and processing (Cameroon Tribune, 2014). That being said, as of 2014 four major commercialization avenues are in place for official farmers of Oku white honey: OHC; the Programme d’Appui aux Initiatives Locales à L’Auto-Emploi, which helps farmers meet standards in Europe and North America for export; Tropical Forest Products, a small honey and wax importer in the United Kingdom; and Guiding Hope, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that primarily focuses on the national market and has increasingly helped farmers develop value added NTFPs, such as soaps and propolis (FAO, 2010).
Along with Oku white honey, these NTFPs have become useful commodities for farmers and local cooperatives to market locally and abroad (FAO, 1998). By 2014, farmers, NGOs, and cooperatives such as OHC were working towards expanding such commercialization efforts for Oku white honey and related products domestically and internationally (Agricultures Network, 2009).
In Cameroon, apiculture has been predominantly an occupation in rural areas (FAO, 2007). By further exploiting the value of Oku white honey though the PGI and focusing on niche international markets (as well as continuing to target domestic markets), farmers, producers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and cooperatives such as OHC have been able to continue to develop the apiculture sector and increase their livelihoods (Ecology and Society, 2011).
Notwithstanding various challenges such as deforestation from logging that threatens the Kilum Ijim forest and the bees’ habitat (The Farmer’s Voice, 2014), the Oku white honey PGI has brought increased awareness to the product and other NTFPs resulting from its production. According to Bang George, manager of OHC, in 2014 between eight and ten metric tons of Oku white honey were produced annually under the PGI scheme, and up to 40 million Central African CFA Francs (FCFA; approximately US$75,000 in 2014) are infused into the local economy every year.
Only a few years after the PGI was registered, sale prices per kilogram have increased by up to 40 percent and hundreds of new apiculture NGOs, SMEs, and other groups have sprung up (Centre for International Forestry Research, 2010). As of 2014, one liter of processed Oku white honey commands a price of FCFA 4,000 (approximately US$7.50 as of 2014), whereas before the PGI one liter sold for only FCFA 1,500 (approximately US$2.83), representing a significant increase (according to the Cameroon Tribune, 2014).
Beyond these individual enterprises, thousands of people are involved in producing official Oku white honey through the cooperatives such as OHC and the Oku White Honey Producers Association, and the increased income they have received thanks to the PGI - which allows Oku white honey to command a premium - has brought many positive economic and social changes to those involved in its commercialization (according to the Cameroon Tribune, 2014).
Making a buzz with a PGI
As apiculture skills are passed down from generation to generation, they can empower rural youth and enhance their economic and social outlook (FAO, 2012). Moreover, the PGI for Oku white honey can be used as an instrument for increased economic development in the region by maintaining quality standards, increasing market share, and encouraging future investment (Joint Research Unit Innovation, CIRAD, 2011). The experiences, both positive and negative, of the Oku white honey PGI could also serve as an example for how the richness of the African continent can be effectively exploited.