Made In Ghana, Sold In U.S.A: Honey Co-Op Provides Jobs In Africa

A Utah foodie and entrepreneur has partnered with an Ashanti chief in a remote forest region of Ghana to produce and export honey to the U.S.

The partnership resulted in a honey cooperative in Ghana that has benefited the livelihood of 3,500 people.

When Salt Lake City native Anthony Baron Kirk first tasted the brown-black honey he now markets in the U.S. as Aseda Raw Honey, he says he fell in love instantly.

“It was a very dense kind of mineral taste, with a starting taste and (a different) ending taste,” he said. “It’s like fine wine and similar rare, wonderful foods.”

Aseda means gratitude in Ashanti-twi, the language spoken by Nana Kwasi Agyemang, Kirk’s business partner, in Kumasi, Ghana, Kingdom of the Ashanti.

People of the Dagomba tribe in four villages around the forest have formed a cooperative to harvest the honey, with 700 beehives, Agyemang told AfkInsider via email.

Kirk started the cooperative by donating beehives to the Ghanaian villagers. Now the cooperative makes its own beehives.

The bees that produce Aseda raw honey gather nectar in Molé National Forest, feeding mainly off the shea tree, known for its holistic properties including skin care, and the calabash plant, a medicinal plant used to help symptoms from the common cold to malaria.

What sets Aseda honey apart from most others is its dark-brown black color – very unusual for honey, Kirk said. Nutritionally, Aseda honey has proteins and carbs, vitamins and minerals, “but the superfood qualities – active cultures and enzyme content are the most important features,” he said. “Then there’s the gourmet element.”

A reviewer on the HoneyColony website, where Aseda honey is sold, wrote this about its color: “It’s not surprising really, since this honey is produced from lovely bees who also happen to be chocoholics as they frequent the lush cacao trees in the Mole National Forest.”

For humans, getting to the Aseda Ghana beekeeping operation isn’t so easy.

“It’s a journey through long stretches of less-than-paved roads that are crazy in a car, which become bumpier dirt roads,” Kirk said. “There are river crossings.”

Kirk and his vice president and “buzz” creator, Bessie McIntosh, bootstrapped Aseda Wild Honey with the help of friends and family. When they met Atyemang in Ghana, “he went all in right along with us,” Kirk said.

“(Agyemang) has invested as much time as Bessie and I, except in Africa,” Kirk said. “It’s not just having a partner in Ghana. We had to really figure out a way to create ownership for him.”

The result is a “true” cooperative, now in its fifth year, Kirk said. “We’re providing ownership for carpenters, drivers, 100 beekeepers actually caring for the bees, ethically harvesting honey. It’s not industrial beekeeping – it’s all about bee help.”

Co-op members must get special licenses from the local government to harvest trees to make bee boxes. Metal workers and welders are paid to outfit the hives.

Once harvested, the honey comes back to the U.S. in giant 55-gallon drums, airfreighted nonstop in climate-controlled conditions. “Climate control is a big thing,” Kirk said. “Honey is one of the most stable foods on the planet. If it’s true raw honey, after 100 years it’s still edible but heat breaks down the enzymes.”

Before Aseda, the honey was not available in the U.S., McIntosh said. The occasional tourist would stumble on it at roadside stands in villages. Now it’s sold in seven states including at Whole Foods.

Agyemang said he thinks the cooperative can create a market in Ghana for Aseda honey. In Ghana, local honey is mostly sold on the street in water bottles, he said, “and I believe we can do better.”

Most supermarkets in Ghana depend on honey from Asia, “and the quality is not up to Aseda honey,” Agyemang said. “What we need is good packaging and labeling. We should bring our own honey to our supermarkets and export it to other countries in Africa.”

The Aseda honey cooperative model could work in other communities and enterprises through the partnerships with the U.S., Atyemang said.

“It’s a model of community-based work where villagers will have to let their own leaders draw their own constitution which must be freed from political interference. It can work in other business areas like shea butter extraction,” he said.

Cooperatives are particularly suited to women, who account for more than 80 percent of business in rural communities, he said.

On a personal level, Aseda has broadened Agyemang’s horizons.

“Ghana honey is not well known on the international market and our U.S. partnership helps to give the people in the U.S. the unique and different taste of Aseda. I engaged myself in this vision that the word ‘aseda,’ which means gratitude, shall spread all over the world in the mind of the people as quality honey made in Ghana.

“I believe that when properly approached, we can eradicate poverty by our own way to create cooperatives.”

For his part, Kirk says he can’t get enough of the stuff. Aseda U.S.A. buys as much of the honey as it possibly can.

In 2013, Kirk expects to import six 55-gallon barrels of Aseda honey from Ghana. In 2014, he hopes for 10 to 20 barrels.

Kirk said he’s proud he helped create a self-sustaining industry that allows self sufficiency for sometimes-solitary Ghanaian communities “that want to stay that way,” he said. “They have income. They can dictate how they want to preserve their wild lands. That’s incredibly empowering. This is a tremendous effort by everyone involved.”

Gratitude is his guiding light and mantra for having the opportunity “to do this in the world,” Kirk said. “What we’re doing as a company – we’re part of a charge that feels we need to protect these wild places as companies and leaders.”