Variety

Bee in business

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on December 14, 2011 Published on June 09, 2011

Money from honey: Mr Rousseau Britto and his sister Ms Josephine at their beekeeping farm in Sivaganga, near Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Children handle a beehive with ease

It's not often that you find a young man earning Rs 1.1 lakh a month, in a safe and stable organisation like the Shipping Corporation of India, quitting his job for the uncertainties that plague the world of Indian agriculture. But Rousseau Britto, now 32, after graduating in 2003 in marine engineering from Madurai, joined the SCI, and quit it three years later.

It's not often that you find a young man earning Rs 1.1 lakh a month, in a safe and stable organisation like the Shipping Corporation of India, quitting his job for the uncertainties that plague the world of Indian agriculture.

But Rousseau Britto, now 32, after graduating in 2003 in marine engineering from Madurai, joined the SCI, and quit it three years later.

“The money was really good, but my heart was not in that work,” he says.

His heart was in the 100-acre farm in Sivaganga, near Madurai, where his father has been doing organic farming for 28 years. So he quit to join him. In 2003, his sister Josephine had done a course in honeybee-keeping with the KVIC (Khadi and Village Industries Corporation) and had started making honey in a small way. But with Britto joining her in 2006, the venture started expanding slowly.

He explains that in 2006 they started making honey with only 50 honeybee boxes — one box generates about 3-5 kg of honey. Now they have over 20,000 such boxes. But there is so much demand for the honey he makes with different flavours — jamun, neem, lychee, sunflower, coffee, tulsi, ginger, garlic and forest honey — that he is sure he will soon be ready for the export market. The jamun honey is excellent for diabetics, says Britto; there is quite a demand for it in both Tamil Nadu and Mumbai, where he markets this honey. A spoonful taken with warm water in the morning helps control blood sugar, he claims.

Similarly, garlic honey, where garlic extract and garlic juice are added to ordinary honey, is “good for the heart, controls cholesterol and hypertension, and helps blood purification too.”

He and his sister use five acres for beekeeping; on the rest the family grows rice, sugarcane, cashew, and fruits such as mango, chiku, amla and jamun.

Good to be in agriculture!

He is one of those rare Indians who find farming profitable, and is all enthusiasm for venturing into exports in the next couple of years. But farmers do battle with labour issues, he says. Luckily for him, however, beekeeping is not labour-intensive; “I have about 20 employees and I pay them Rs 5,000-10,000 a month, or else they will not come. The MNREGA scheme has made people lazy.” But for the actual beekeeping work he barely needs two people. “Because the bees themselves work to produce the honey, and we don't need to do much. There is no maintenance because we use only Indian bees,” says Britto.

He adds that these are much better than Italian or other foreign bees, as Indian bees are hardier and less susceptible to disease. “So there is no need to give them antibiotics or chemical drugs.”

So, how does one give antibiotics to bees?

In the feed, apparently; the feed can be sugar syrup or honey, and the antibiotics can be mixed into it. And during the flowering season — February to October — there is no need for the feed as the bees get their nutrition from the flowers. Britto is very happy with his Indian bees as “we can easily handle them and the maintenance is much less. Even if there are many boxes, with 10,000 bees in each, they will know exactly which box to go to. It's homing instinct; these bees will not go into the neighbouring box”. On his land he has about 10,000 boxes, each with 5,000-10,000 bees.

Pay to get a bee sting!

But isn't it scary to be surrounded by so many bees?

“Not at all”, is Britto's reply. “Handle them gently and they will behave like your pets. We can easily carry beehives… even my sister's little child handles them with ease.”

And then, he says something startling. “Even if a bee stings, it is good for our health because a bee always stings on the nerves. This is good for the nervous system and can prevent strokes,” is his explanation.

He adds that in China people go to bee farms to get stung and pay a fee for it. “Now, even on our farm, people have started to come and pay Rs 200 to get stung by bees. We just pick up the bee — it won't sting me — and place it on the visitor's hand and the bee will sting him!”

Profitability

This young man and his two sisters, who look after the honey production and sales, find farming a “very profitable vocation”. Currently they produce around 10 tonnes a month; the honey they produce and market under the Vibis brand is totally organic, but is priced very reasonably; “Rs 80 for 250 grams, against Rs 90 for the same quantity of non-organic honey — because this is a direct farm product. And we do manage to make a decent profit,” says Britto.

As for the demand, it couldn't be better. He has his eye on the export market as mega bucks will come from there, “but to enter the export market our production will have to increase to over 150 tonnes a year.” But he is also struggling to meet the demand in India, particularly for jamun honey, which is a big hit. “In Mumbai alone one company is asking for 15 tonnes jamun honey but we are able to meet this demand only during the flowering season,” he says.

There is good demand for neem honey too, for which the flowering season is on, and his family produces about 10 tonnes of neem honey, which has a bitter taste and is good for diabetes and helps in cancer prevention too, he says.

Britto adds that getting export orders is easy and he can fulfil them by buying honey from other farmers. Already he has a tie-up with Kashmir Apiaries Exports, a Ludhiana company that produces and exports honey. Britto's potential clients are in the UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, all major consumers of honey.

Expansion plans

He has worked out a neat expansion strategy; the first step is to get franchisees for marketing all their organic produce, including honey, at retail outlets. “I want to make more people entrepreneurs, just like me,” says this young entrepreneur.

The franchisees would need to invest about Rs 3-5 lakh, and have 200-250 sq ft space, “but more than money I'm looking for people with a passion for agriculture, an interest in the ecosystem and belief in organic farming. Only then can we find solutions to so many eco-problems that we face vis-à-vis sustainable agriculture.”

Of course, getting a customer base will be difficult initially for these franchisees “because the general belief is that organic products are costlier. And those who prefer organic products won't come to retail shops.” But slowly, sales are picking up because the costing is low as we “source directly from the farm and there are no wholesalers or other intermediaries.”

He is proud that he has already converted some people into “organic entrepreneurs” selling not only honey but also products made from what Britto's family grows organically — pappads, vadams, pickles and so on from rice, urad dhal, mangoes, as also gingelly, coconut and sunflower oil. The monthly sale at such retail outlets is around Rs 2 lakh, of which honey alone accounts for Rs 50,000.

His dream is to start many organic outlets all over India and go into exports in a big way. And, of course, increase the consumption of honey among Indians “who use very little honey. But foreigners consume a lot of it as they think it is very healthy. They understand better the medicinal and nutritional value of honey… that it has so many vitamins and minerals,” he says.

Even though Britto's present annual turnover is only Rs 60 lakh, he is confident of taking this up to Rs 30 crore in 3-4 years. “I am optimistic because only in February 2011 I've started marketing activities and am getting a fantastic response.” Also, he has enhanced his production capacity by getting honey from others and mixing it with his produce after proper lab tests.

His tip to find out if the honey you're buying is genuine or not: When you add a drop to a glass of water, if it sits at the bottom, it is good honey; if sugar is mixed in it, it will dissolve.

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Published on June 09, 2011
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