Mulumebet Gebeyehu was an accountant in a government office for 26 years, before eventually quitting to brew tej, honey meade, as a business, in a belated decision following a family party.
The party was to celebrate the graduation of her daughter, last August. She prepared and served various traditional foods and tej to her guests, some of whom were very excited about her brewing ability.
“You are wasting your potential and the opportunity that is waiting for you out there. You should change it in to money,” one of her guests had advised her.
She has made tej for home consumption for years; the business side of it hadn’t even crossed her mind until then. Apparently though, the time was right, and she was coaxed into it when she got an advance payment to supply for a wedding party.
“Things happened faster than I could imagine,” she said
Tej is brewed in traditional ways from honey and hop sticks (gesho), both for home consumption and commercial purposes. With alcohol content of six to 11pc, according to various studies, this honey brew accounts for the lion’s share of domestic honey consumption in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia produced 50,000tns of honey in 2011/12, according to the Central Statistical Agency (CSA), only 10.7pc of their 450,000tn potential. Additionally, exports, according to a recent study by USAID, were a minuscule 121tns and 531tns, to Norway and Sudan, respectively, in 2011. Norway started with just 40tns in 2009, reaching a new high of 200tns between January and July 2012.
Norway’s purchase is encouraged with assistance from a Norwegian honey processor and distributor and Norway’s Development Agency (NORAD) and Development Fund. Prior to that, the UK used to be the largest buyer, but its imports never surpassed 45tns for any given year, according to the study.
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are the top buyers, averaging 21tns and 14tns a year, respectively. Kuwait and the UAE import even less than that. The price for Ethiopian honey in the European market, where its supply is erratic, rose from 3,520 dollars to 4,033 dollars (grades unspecified) from February 2010 to May 2012, bringing in 100 dollars to 300 dollars more than Mexican honey.
Practically, the whole bulk feeds into the local traditional tej industry. Mulumebet buys up to 200kgs of honey from Gojjam, in Amhara Regional State, which she says she uses to make up to 1200lt of tej each month. She sells a litre for 64 Br. She sells her tej from a small tavern, or tej bet, which she has rented at Gurd Shola. She also entertains orders for various parties, such as birthdays and weddings. If it wasn’t for the shortage of space, she is confident that her customer base would be far larger than what it is currently.
Other more established tej bets also boast bigger sales and larger numbers of customers. Tobia Tej Bet, behind Axum Hotel, at Haya Hulet, in Kirkos District, has bigger space than Mulumebet’s, allowing patrons to consume their tej both inside the building and out in the open, in its compound. Named after its owner, Tobia Mamuye, its walls are decorated with paintings of people drinking tej. It has been around since 1999, serving tej and raw and roasted beef.
Its monthly sale amounts to 3,000lt, which it sells for 70 Br a litre, according to Tigist Eshetu, manager of Tobia Tej.
“This is the real place for me to go back in time to the old days, thinking about my tradition,” said a customer at Tobia.
But, he complains that the price makes it impossible to consume tej even once a month let alone during every meal. He remembers paying one Birr a litre, 20 years ago, and 10 Br just 10 years ago.
“This is the result of the high price of inputs we use, especially the honey,” said Tigist Eshetu, manager of Tobia Tej.
The honey they use to make tej at Tobia now costs 100 Br a kilo, up from 10 Br 15 years ago, according to Tigist.
Aster Seyfe, owner of the Aster brand of tej, which is exported to a number of countries, says a sack of hop sticks now costs her up to 1,000 – 1400 Br. When she came into the business, this amount of hops, which can be used to make 800lts of tej, cost just 70 Br.
Tobia, which sources its honey from Gojjam and Gonder, is now preparing to produce its own honey, according to Tegest. It is starting with 50 hives in Bure, Gojjam, as a pilot project.
The small export market is also facing a fermenting problem, which the home market is immune from. Aster Seyfe, owner of Aster tej, which has been around for 19 years, used to export to a number of countries, including the US, Italy, Israel and South Africa. She enjoyed that business, however, for just four years.
“Tej does not stop fermenting,” she said.
She said she tried different ways of bottling her brew, but it always ended up bursting open. She sought outside help, but did not like the chemical solutions she was offered. She wanted her tej to be as natural as possible. She says she is experimenting with different “secret formulas”, in order to resume exporting, hopefully by the coming Ethiopian New Year.
Despite such problems, the export market is becoming alluring even for the new-in-business, Mulumebet. She says she is now in talks with a company that could help her with that.
“I was very late to join the business,” she said.
She is still happy with the “incredible revenue” she collected five months ago, during the celebration of the 125th anniversary of Addis Abeba, as she charts her way in business with the potent, traditional yellow drink.