Abdul Shukoor lives in a house built by bees.
After almost two decades of tending beehives in his backyard, the 53-year-old Afghan owes his livelihood to honey. Honey paid for his home, supports his family, and put his six children – and two grandchildren – through school.
“The secret of my success is bees,” says Shukoor, speaking through an interpreter at home in northern Afghanistan.
“While the early years were very difficult, this house is the product of bees.”
Today, Shukoor tends more than a hundred beehives and owns a business to train other farmers to do the same. It hasn’t been an easy road – but it’s been smoother in recent years, thanks to a program supported by Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
The program helps communities in northern Afghanistan to plan and manage a range of development projects that promote income-generation in sectors such as agriculture and small businesses.
Shukoor got his introduction to beekeeping – also known as apiculture – in 1994, when Kabul fell to civil war.
The fighting forced Shukoor to leave his government job and flee to his home province of Badakhshan in north-eastern Afghanistan, where a local organization was lending out honeybees to locals.
Even though he’d never seen a beehive before, Shukoor decided to try out a career as a beekeeper.
“At first, the bees stung me every day,” Shukoor says. He started out with three hives, but expanded to thirteen within his first year of business. Shukoor’s wife disapproved of his new business venture at first, but she was soon impressed by his quick success – and the family dove head-first into the honey business.
The business grew steadily, reaching fifty hives by 2005. In the next two years, disaster struck twice – flooding swept away Shukoor’s home and beehives, and the region was struck by a parasite outbreak which decimated local bee populations.
Shukoor’s business survived but It was a harsh reality for beekeepers like Shukoor: a lack of access to supplies, medicines, and market information meant their fortunes were at the mercy of both natural disasters and the vagaries of the market.
By supporting private institutions – like Badakhshan’s Beekeepers Association – the AKFC program aimed to tackle this problem, by driving local economic and social development over the long-term. Through training, mentoring, and organizing educational trips, these local institutions built leadership and management skills from within.
Shukoor’s local beekeeping association took advantage of these new resources. The group independently organized a trip to neighbouring Tajikistan, where they bought a more robust species of honeybee that thrives in Badakhshan’s high altitude.
His association has also led campaigns to teach local beekeepers how to protect their bee populations against natural disasters.
Thanks to Canadian support, the program has changed the landscape of apiculture in northern Afghanistan. For the first time, the region’s honey industry can obtain vital supplies and medicines from national and international markets. The program’s market-oriented approach has established private suppliers to provide beekeepers with training, medicines and equipment, and beekeeping has become a stable business in Badakhshan.
Shukoor has benefitted from marketing and management training under the program. He now runs his own business, training other beekeepers how to succeed in the honey industry by maximizing honey production and marketing their product.
Two generations of Shukoor’s family have now grown up with bees in the backyard, and the family business is going strong. “Of course they get stung now and then,” he says, “but it is nothing that a little something sweet can’t cure.”