Pauline Otila lifts a green wooden box from a stand, checks if it is well made before placing it down and picking another.
They are dozens of them, and she samples a few meticulously like a doctor examining a patient.
The boxes are beehives – Kenya top bar hives – and Pauline is at her apiculture business in Industrial Area, Nairobi.
Located in a godown, her place is as busy as a beehive. At one section, two women are fastening wooden pieces and at another, a male worker paints finished hives. She has 17 employees.
“This is where I do all my business with bees,” says Otila with a smile, adding, “Well, of course the bees are not here, we farm them elsewhere but the honey ends up here.”
You can call her the queen of bees as that is what aptly describes her. Pauline keeps bees, manufactures the hives and other bee equipment as well as sells processed honey.
“I call my business Apiculture Ventures. I make beauty products including body cream, lotion and lip balm. There are also candles I make from wax,” she says.
For edible products, she makes a variety of honey namely pure, whipped, blended with chocolate and comb
After working for an apiculture company for 16 years, Pauline, 40, quit to establish her own company.
"I had gained enough experience from employment having risen from administrative secretary to become the operations manager and felt that it was time to be my own boss and create jobs for other people."
A trip to Israel was also an eye-opener in her quest to start her own firm.
“In Israel, we visited six apiculture companies, four of which were run by women. This really challenged me," says Pauline.
In 2018, having registered her company, Pauline left employment.
Her initial capital was Sh4 million, money that came from her savings and the benefits she was paid by her employer.
"The money went on hiring the godown, buying raw materials like wood for making hives and importation of the first batch of machineries. The first two years were not easy, I could barely pay myself the same salary I was earning during employment," she recalls.
But today, having started with producing three hives a week, she now makes over 200 and sells each at Sh4,500. She owns 930 hives, spread on farms in Isinya, Namanga, Juja, Chaka, Embu and Bondo.
“I lease idle land especially from people living in diaspora, sets up beehives and then we share income from the hives. My target is to have 3,000 hives in the next two years.”
Pauline harvested two tonnes of honey last year, and this year, she has already hit 2.4 tonnes. She sells a kilo of pure honey at Sh1,000 while jelly goes for Sh2,000 per kilo, lip balm at Sh150 a piece and chocolate for Sh65 per 20 grammes.
She has also partnered with Bidco Kenya to offer pollination services to farmers it has contracted. She takes the bees on farms at a daily cost of Sh100 per hive.
“I come with my colonised hives, and the bees spend time pollinating sunflower crops for good yields,” says Pauline.
Alternatively, farmers buy hives from Apiculture Ventures and put them in their farm.
She sells bee colonies from her breeding site in Juja for Sh5,000, if in a catcher box and Sh7,000 if in a brooder box.
“A brooder is a part of a hive where the queen lives. A catcher box is a small box or mini ‘hive’ used to catch bees. Brooder is bigger than a catcher box,” she explains.
At her enterprise in Industrial Area, she also offers training on beekeeping at Sh2,000 per day, and has about 20-30 trainees monthly. For on-farm training, she charges Sh7,000 per daily. She markets her products online, through referrals and exhibitions such as on World Bee Day.
Pauline, who is the secretary of Apiculture Platform of Kenya (APK), an umbrella body for stakeholders, has taken her place in the lucrative industry, which from days of yore was the work of men.
She cites invasion of the sector by quacks who compete with those selling genuine products, threatened bee population occasioned by climate change, deforestation and use of harmful pesticides as the challenges facing the industry.
“At the firm level, there is high cost of operation and lack of trained personnel,” says Pauline, who adds she owes her success to her supportive husband Robert Kamwara.
“When you play weak, they treat you as such, when you play strong, they appreciate your strengths,” she advises women.
APK CEO Fredric Chiaji encourages women to take up apiculture as a profession, saying there are numerous opportunities in the sector.
Joel Masobo, an apiculture expert from Egerton University, says using idle land for beekeeping is a good business model.
“Land owners can make arrangement to lease out land or partner with a beekeeper and utilise the available land then share the income,” says Masobo, describing the partnership as a win-win situation.
For a good site, the catchment areas should have ample flowers and a water source, he offers.
“Beekeeping is facing many challenges amid climate change, including reduced foliage. This calls for innovative ways of enabling pollinations, and having strategically placed apiaries is one of these ways.”
However, the model of beekeeping comes with challenges, including security and that hive owners will either need to keep travelling or hire people to inspect hives.