Maurice Dundu-Herald Correspondent
Driving to Ngaone, which is on the border of Chimanimani and Chipinge districts is a terrible experience mainly because of the deplorable state of the road.
But the poor road is always busy as it is a place of pilgrimage being home to prominent religious figures like Apostle Ezekiel Guti and the spirit medium Mbuya Chanaka.
Members of the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa (Forward in Faith) often throng the area to see where their spiritual father had his calling.
However, reasons for visiting the area have gone beyond religion due to the entrepreneurial flair of one Ishmael Sithole, a bee keeping expert who is creating waves in the area.
While other university graduates yearn for formal employment, 36-year-old Sithole has made remarkable progress after he decided to hang his gown and shelve his academic files to pursue a fresh career in apiculture.
Sithole is a holder of a BA degree in Philosophy, Psychology and Religious Studies but his inspiring apiculture business has expanded beyond mere production to processing of honey to various by-products.
More interestingly, Ngaone has also become a tourist attraction partly because of Ishmael’s business.
Asked to divulge the scope and depth of his business, Sithole said he had more than 200 colonies, queen rearing centre and a classic honey processing plant.
He said he was also doing apiculture training in Zimbabwe and beyond.
“I manage over 200 colonies. I have a state of the art honey processing facility and I have facilitated countless beekeeping training sessions in Zimbabwe and abroad.
“I run and own the multi-award winning MacJohnson Apiaries Private Business Corporation,” Sithole enthused.
Enjoying the scenic vegetation of Region One going towards the former Rhodesian military camp in Ngaoni one sees a warning poster boldly written “honey bees hard at work, do not approach or disturb the hives” with a graphic symbol representing the same.
This is where Ishmael’s apiary is located.
The area is fenced with a barbed wire and Ishmael explains why.
“A standard apiary has a perimeter fence to keep out stray animals and humans.”
After walking through the bush inside the apiary enjoying the sound of chirping birds and buzzing bees getting in and out of beautifully made and evenly spaced hives, one suddenly comes across a netwire fenced structure with a roof.
Inside the structure are a lot of beehives positioned on erected platforms.
By merely looking, one can tell that something special happens inside the enclosure.
With good language command and undoubted knowledge of the subject, Sithole explains the special purpose of the roofed shade.
“Inside the perimeter fence we have different hive sites or stations.
“Some are open sites and one is a fenced bee shade. This is our queen rearing centre.
“I aspire to be the leading supplier of bee colonies for pollination services in tree crop plantations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique apart from being the beekeeping consultant of choice within SADC and beyond.
“Our hive products and by-products should occupy the lion’s share in local, regional and international markets,” he said.
Many may be attracted to the business after being inspired by Sithole’s eye catching apiaries and the common perception is that there are no much inputs required except beehives.
However, Sithole had this to note: “Beekeeping is not simple and straightforward as many armchair writers make it appear.
“Many people have grown accustomed to the heretical teaching that beekeeping is cheap and simple.”
He added: “Such a heretical teaching has often been peddled by those who take beekeeping as a snooker project; I mean environment conservationists whose main goal is not for the beekeeper to run a profitable and sustainable business entity but to use beekeeping as a means to environmental conservation by making beekeepers have interest in protecting the forests.”
Sithole said honey supply remained far below demand and this presented a serious lucrative opportunity for those who were passionate about beekeeping.
Sithole gave an exhaustive account of why bee keeping was an uphill task.
“Bees are defensive hence proper protective clothing is a necessity but it comes at a significant cost which is a deterrent to those who want cheap startups.
“Honey is food hence there is need to invest in food grade handling and storage equipment which does not come cheap.
“Bees require well constructed and insulated hives which also do not come cheap”, he explains.
Having hives do not necessarily make one a beekeeper as hives themselves do not make honey but bees do, he noted.
The hives were baited to attract feral swarms or in Sithole’s case colonies were introduced into the new hives after splitting existing bee colonies and introducing new queens.
Sometimes colonies were relocated from ceilings and anthills into hives.
“The heart beat of beekeeping is managing honey bee colonies and protecting them from weather elements, pests and predators.
“Bees are livestock and as such their productivity is hinged on their health and welfare,” said Sithole.
On the tourism side, a non experienced person may struggle to understand how bee keeping can attract tourists since bees appear very common insects.
Worse still, they are potentially dangerous insects.
Currently there are no guest houses or lodges in Ngaone and the road is in a terrible state.
Sithole usually arranges for the accommodation of visitors in lodges in Chipinge town, 44km away and they have to use off-road vehicles to reach Ngaone.
“But the future looks bright, especially once we manage to have local guest houses, lodges or chalets,” Sithole opined.
Sithole said tourists also enjoyed seeing the world class apiary and a state of the art honey processing facility.
In the apiary are traditional log hives, basket hives, Kenyan top bar hives, Langstroth hives, cathedral hives and OAT hives.
There is also queen bee identification, drones identification, worker bee identification, posing for photos with live African honey bees and at times harvesting, processing and packaging honey.
All in all the visitors never miss the opportunity to taste the legendary MacJohnson Honeywine.
Inspired by remarkable progress of his tourism business, Sithole plans to deal with the challenge faced by his customers of having to drive daily on a bad road to the site by having lodges close by.
“We intend to expand it by partnering willing development partners to construct guests residential quarters with catering and conferencing facilities in Ngaone.”
Sithole now seems to understand bees better than religion.
“In terms of formal education I don’t have impressive high sounding certificates and degrees.
“I simply hold a BA in Philosophy, Psychology and Religious Studies from the University of Zimbabwe.
“Apart from this, I have undergone a number of on-the-job training in various fields among them Business Grooming and Etiquette; Effective Industrial Relations Management and Finance for None Finance Manangers.”
Sithole has learnt a lot through commiting himself to studying bees on his own which has seen him scooping awards for demonstrating exceptional understanding of bees.
Over the past six years he has devoted at least an hour daily to read, learn or practically interact with bees in order to learn something knew about apiculture.
His deep understanding of bees has enabled him to host all guests despite their level of education.
“I feel deeply humbled when primary school kids, doctors and professors come for consulting services and depart with their cups full,” Sithole said.
MacJohnson Apiaries was incoporated in 2015, but in 2017 Sithole participated in the Opportunities for Youth Employment Project training Youth Lead Beekeepers in Mozambique’s Sussundenga District and Macosa District in Manica Province.
Thus McJohnson apiaries has already made its name long distances away from its original centre in Ngaone.
It offers beekeeping training and consulting services, supplies beekeeping equipment, jarred liquid and creamed honey, propolis, beeswax, beeswax romantic, religious and medicinal candles, Honeywine, propolis ointments, propolis tinctures, lemon grass swarm charm among other bee related products and services.