SA honey beverages strike gold
Claire Fulton


8 January 2007

A honey wine produced at Makana Meadery in Grahamstown banked gold at an international festival in Colorado and is set to turn the Eastern Cape into the largest honey-producing area in South Africa.

Honey Sun African Mead – sweet mead infused with rooibos, honeybush, cinnamon and apple – is one of several value-added products combining African traditions with skills training and a top-shelf product.

It collected gold in the speciality category of the 2006 International Mead Festival in Boulder, Colorado.

The six-year-old meadery in Frontier Country is already a world leader in mead process design and holds a patent on its continuous fermentation process.

Thanks to a bicycle thief
But the sweetest anecdote to this success is how the theft of a bicycle, the spoils of the Cape Honeybee and a friendship forged a wholly South African enterprise that is reinvesting in the province.

"My bicycle was stolen from outside the Zoology Department at Rhodes University in my second year of studies," says company director and biotechnologist Dr Garth Cambray.

Instructed by his irate parents to "get a job and buy a new bike", Cambray earned income "measuring bee wings for a Rhodes entomology professor".

So began his love affair with the Cape Honeybee – Capis mellifera capensis – and soon Xhosa-speaking Vuyani Ntantiso would enter his life to help manage his hives and ultimately forge a business partnership.

"We can thank the person who stole my bicycle for the direction we are headed today," says Cambray.

A 20 000-year old beverage
Now Makana Meadery resolves to place the 20 000-year old South African honey-based beverage, iQhilika, on world shelves.

According to Cambray, while China is the largest honey-producing country in the world, her "sick bees" raise the risk of antibiotic products in the raw material – unusable on the organic market. This has opened a gap for organic bee products from South Africa.

In subsistence economies, honey is harvested from wild or semi-wild hives, Cambray explains. It is rich in pollen and debris and perfect for mead making. "In rural areas, honey is also frequently bought as an ingredient for traditional medicine."

Makana Meadery hopes to give credibility back to the South African beverage and prove that biotechnology can create jobs.

Training, hiring beekeepers
Over 100 people from rural areas including Komani (Queenstown), Ngcobo and Peddie have been trained in basic beekeeping skills under the guidance of Ntantiso.

A target of 1 000 trained beekeepers has been set for the province. "Beekeepers trained by us will be encouraged to sell honey to friends and family first and any overflow of their product to the meadery," says Cambray.

Products sold by Makana Meadery include an award-winning herbal mead; sweet, dry and chilli meads; vinegar, honey mead mustard, honey, honey marmalade and a range of jams made from seasonal fruits and honey.

This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, summer 2006/07 edition. Republished here with kind permission of the author.

Vicky Rowe
Follow me