With Easter and the following peak wedding season on the horizon, the demand for both honey and butter increases exponentially. This sees the various outlets - including in Merkato, as well as door-to-door traders – vying for business. Sales have, however, so far been slow, and high prices are putting off some buyers, reports TESFA MOGESSIE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER
The country’s predominant Orthodox Church will soon break the Lent season, with people once again permitted to eat and drink, including meat, dairy products and alcohol. The end of this fasting period and the following two months are, therefore, a reward for those who have made it through- and an ideal season for wedding festivities.
The months of December through to April are what is dubbed as the dry season for honey production. Despite the shortage in supply and the anticipation of a peak season for demand due to Easter and the wedding season, Mekarto’s honey corner is struggling to secure attention in the midst of the hike in butter demand.
The research also indicates that 80pc of Ethiopian honey is currently used for brewing Tej, 5pc is consumed by rural households and the remaining 15pcsold in the market.
Despite this simple logical deduction of Assegid Tefera, 47, a retailer of honey, and his friends that this season comes with a hike in demand for Tej for weddings and Easter. the days are still dragging with no more than five kilograms in sales a day.
If a colony of flies are buzzing and licking at the varieties of honey in a small packed shanty shop, no doubt they are too in Merkato. Adjacent to a bucket of honey, one could also find a heap of butter bags –something that people mayfind odd. A cane at one end tied to fur at the other are what retailers are waving the whole day to defy flies vying to feed on the honey.
In the northern part of Merkato, Gojjam Berenda, there are rows of makeshift-looking dilapidated shops. Inside, a group of retailers sell honey and butter, having acquired licenses for both.
From the most sought after two items, particularly during the Easter season and the peak wedding season that follows, comes a pungent smell, which at times pushes people back into the open.
This corner, be it for the smell or the high prices, is in relative slow mode compared to the biggest open market’s usual jostle.
While Fortune was assessing the market for almost three hours,only two customers came. Suffering a welcoming hug from the flies, both ended up not buying.
A lady that came to buy the most essential food item to mark the end of lent season – butter – was frustrated by the sharp increase in price.
“Three weeks back it was only 160 birr,” the mother of three kids, with a family of eight, commented.
There is no way back for her without this expensive item.The minimum of four kilos of butter she has to buy for the holiday week only will demand her to spend a thousand birr –a quarter of her monthly income.
“Easter is known for the price hike in butter,” Haile Maregu, a retailer, explained. “This year, however, is the worst due to shortage in supply.”
Last year, the same time saw a price 25-30birr less. Most retailers agree that the drought has had a detrimental impact on supply.
Due to fear of the existing and yet expected to worsen drought situation, many farmers rushed to sell their cattle, as they could not secure grazing fields and water to drink.The El Nino impact has left close to 10 million unstable and looking for aid.
The price for honey, however, is not so shaken by the drought.
Impact is there in the supply – with it being the dry season – and there are hopes that better demand for honey wouldcome from the weeding season’s demand for the honey-based traditional drink, Tej.
Giving her back to the honey, Kibkab Tsegaye engaged in intense bargaining, trying to talk down Haile Maregu on the price set for butter. She held a basket down on her left wrist. Wearing smart-casual attire, she braved the scorching midday sun to buy butter and seems ready to incur whatever cost there might be. But she got a bit baffled when the seller informed her of the price.
“Butter is one item I should not miss on holiday,” she said.”I don’t even like the arrangement of the two next to each other in a confined shop.”
Two brands of butter—from Gojjan and Sheno – dominate the market. A kilo of Gojjam butter sold at 200 Br, while Sheno butter sold at 250 Br.
Assegid rolls his eyes here and there. He has been in the business for two decades. It is the only profession he has pursued so far.
Looking back, he does not feel proud.
“Life has not changed fundamentally for me and my family,” Asegid sayd. “Now I have started selling butter also, in order to diversify.”
His rationale to do so is the unpredictable market trend of honey.
Logically thinking that what comes ahead is the season for tej, he ordered varieties of honey from different sources.
Among honey brands he has on his shelves are honey from Gojjam, in the north-west of Ethiopia, and Wolega and Jimma, in the south-west. This enables him to provide people with a choice of the different aromas, depending on the vegetation of the area.
“After all the ups and downs, I only have a 10 Br margin,” he says, pointing to the Gojjam honey that he sells at the 100-110 birr a kilo range.
Deeper assessment of the market, however, shows an average of 30-40 Br profit for the retailers in Merkato.
The thirty to forty-birr gain, however, is hard earned money for Assegid and his friends, especially the long back and forth with the rare customers that do come.
“Suspicion is deeply entrenched in our customers’ mindsets,” Shumet Gebeyehu says, making his frustration clear. “This is the part that I find tiring”
Shewangiz Merga is among the few that matched the expectations of Assegid and Shumet.
He came to buy honey for his younger sister’s wedding in a month from now.
“I took the responsibility of brewing the Tej,” he informed us – a common culture that family members share the burden of organising the wedding party.
He opted to come all the way to Merkato despite the door to door honey sellers in his area.
”I came here to have more options, in order to select the better one in terms of quality and purity,” he said.
Though the price can be competitive with those farmers with their own bee farms. the quality is compromised from being exposed to high temperatures for long hours. When it is exposed to the sun, the honey gets crystallised. And if it gets crystallised, the taste could be altered.
According to the National Honey Board Food Technology Product Research Programme, sealed storage stops honey from becoming crystallised for decades. The research also recommends that processed honey be stored at a temperature rangingfrom 18 to 34 degrees Celsius and unprocessed honey at 10 degrees Celsius.
But Endale Simachew,one the vendors who travels door to door sell honey, does not seem to realise the temperate impact. He alerts villages around the Megenagna area, calling out “mar… mar”.
He has two beehives and says his daily income is 400 birr on average. However, Endale Simachew, a vendor, says that “this is pure honey from the source”. He said that he collects honey from his own beehives.
“I can assure the buyers about the quality,” he says, opening a bucket full of honey. “The market is good for me; I sell at list 6-7 kilos a day at 70 Br, which is 10 Br lower than the retail price at Merkato.”
The new players – dedicated honey shops- however are more relaxed in this season, as they had no particular expectation of the rising demand.
“Since we do not sell the kind of honey people use for Tej [crude and non-refined], we haven’t looked forward to anything special,” Belaynesh Girma, owner of the Senifen Honey shop, say.
These kinds of shops are sprouting up around the Meskel flowers area of Addis Abeba.
Belaynesh has a license hanged in wall of her shop. Under the business category is written honey retailer.
“We target special foreign community groups, mainly Chinese and People from Arab countries,” she says.
She claimed that it is all about the network she has built over the last four years, while working as an employee of a company.
In her shop,the prices are already fixed and the products tagged.
A kilo of white Tigray is sold at 380Br-400Br. And honey from Gojjam for between 180-200 Br.She claims that her average margin is 100Br a kilo- wider for the white honey from the North. The Price is 40-60pc higher than in Merkato.
Her price parallels the big processors and exporting companies, like Dima -a pioneer honey processing, producing and exporting company. Established in 2001, its annual transaction total has now reached 26 million Birr, on average.
Out of this, 90pc is sourced from farmers still challenged by the quality of product, according to Hailesilassie Tsegay, the Dima Honey General Manager
The Meles Union is one of its few cooperatives, which supplies 150 quintals to Dima. Both the supplier and Dima though feel that they have a long way to go in terms of product quality. It is not only the two that suffer as a result of this, but the country to loses market for the same reason.
“The Ethiopian honey production sector is being strangled by poor man power skills, poor beekeeping technologies and a lack of modern inputs [modern beehives, processing and packaging machines],” Alemeseged Gebrekidan, an expert who served at the Ministry of Agriculture as a researcher in Bees, told Fortune.
“The criteria to access the EU market are very difficult,” he continues. “There is no traceability system to know to whom this adulterated honey belongs.”
Dima has become a popular brand of honey at least in some corners of the City, where people started asking for it by name.
“Locally, Dima has earned a status as a known brand,” Eyoel Yilma, Shewa Supermarkets Megenagna branch supervisor, informed us. “Price stability keeps customers attached to its product.”
The current price is 380 Br a kilo, as far as Eyoel remembers.
For Hailesilasse, however, this is a crucial moment to keep the brand quality and sustain business.
“Temporal challenges, due to El Nino, are there,” he said. ”Yet far from the fundamental unregulated local and illegal exports that almost paralyse the business”.
Coupled with this concern, studies indicate that the country is actually benefiting from only 10 percent of its 800,000 tonne production potential.
Having failed to exhaustively utilise its production potential, the country has even been importing honey.
Close to 30,000 kg of natural honey is imported at a cost of an estimated 130,906 dollars. In 2015, the country imported 4000 kg of natural honey – 150 pc larger than the previous year. The United Kingdom and South Africa are source countries for the import of natural honey, according to the Ethiopian Custom’s and Revenue Authority (ERCA).
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