Native Nosi: The sweet taste of success

South Africa is home to two indigenous bee species – the African and the Cape bee – and produces enough honey to supply local demand. But more than half of all honey sold in the country is imported. Mokgadi Mabela is working to change that.

Mokgadi Mabela is the third generation of her family to become beekeeprs. (Image: Mokgadi Mabela)

Sulaiman Philip

Native Nosi is a local honey brand. It sells raw honey harvested by small rural farmers – this is what makes her honey better than most brands you find on supermarket shelves, says owner Mokgadi Mabela. “I can tell you exactly where the honey in every pot comes from. With other honeys, some other processed honeys, you can’t really tell it’s origins. It once was honey but all the good enzymes that make it honey have been removed.”

Mabela bubbles like a child showing off her favourite toy when she talks about honey, her enthusiasm evident in every word that tumbles from her mouth as she talks without stopping. Native Nosi sells about 200kg of honey every month but she is working on scaling that up to at least a 1,000kg because she often cannot meet demand.

For now Native Nosi honeys can be bought directly from Mabela or tasted at restaurants around Gauteng. “Word of mouth has been the biggest reason for our growth. Someone will have some honey at a friend and get our number. This is how we’ve grown, this person wants and the next person wants. I don’t formally advertise and already I am overwhelmed.”

Mabela blends and bottles Native Nosi herself. (Image: Mokgadi Mabela)

Her inability to meet demand is prompting Native Nosi to grow organically. She started by buying honey from her father Peter Mabela, a beekeeper, and selling that to friends and colleagues. As demand grew he tapped his network of farmers. “Eventually I started buying my own beehives and would set them up where my father had his. I always seem to be chasing quantity. People like my honey because it’s authentic. People want to know where their food comes from and how their food is produced and I can tell them that.”

She had, she admits, much to learn about the business of honey and the enterprise of beekeeping. Different honeys behave differently she begins. “Some honey bubbles and you need to leave it to rest for a while after you harvest. Sunflower honey crystalises quicker and has a beautiful colour. Then you get avo honey. It’s so dark, deep black, but it’s beautiful. The flavour is lovely and it doesn’t crystalise.”

Mabela’s favourite is Native Nosi’s blend of honeys harvested from beehives in sunflower fields and avo orchards. She says it is a beautifully coloured honey that’s not overly sweet. Learning to mix those together, learning the art of beekeeping, how to set up hives and building a network of suppliers has taken her time.

She makes all her own honey and buys raw honey from small farmers in rural communities in Limpopo, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. They are often exploited because they do not have access to markets, she says. Her annoyance is hard to hide as she explains that buyers would offer farmers “R20 a kilogram knowing they can sell it for R50 a kilo”.

“These are small farmers in rural areas who do not have access to markets. They are all subsistence farmers who use bees to pollinate their crops. Honey is a byproduct. They don’t have access to a market for their honey so they sell it cheap because it’s not their priority. I am trying to change that. Giving them a market and a fair price.”

The story of an African company

Native Nosi exists because Mabela was looking for an authentic product. The beauty of her business, she laughs, is that they don’t even work hard. “The bees do all the work. We simply take what the bees make and give it to clients.”

Mabela is still learning from her father Peter Mabela. (Image: Mokgadi Mabela)

Mabela is the third generation of her family to work with bees. Her grandfather was the first. “He was a teacher, but he always wanted to be a farmer. But his father was adamant that he was going to be a teacher.”

After returning from World War II, her grandfather used his savings to buy land and began farming. He kept livestock and planted seasonal crops. “He had a few beehives because he understood the role they played in pollinating his crops.”

Her father followed his father into agriculture, this time concentrating on beekeeping. Mabela never felt that she would follow in his footsteps. After high school, she left home to study political science and international relations at the University of Pretoria.

Asked if she, a farmer’s daughter, had ever considered going into the family business, she answers without needing a second to think. “No. Never. We weren’t really exposed to my father’s operations. I’d never studied it, I was never really part of his work. At that point farming was intimidating to contemplate. And, farming is not cool.”

Mabela pauses for a thought before adding:, “Entrepreneurship is also intimidating.” So why did she start Native Nosi? About six years ago her father got very ill and for the first time Mabela seriously considered following his path.

“My father was ill, very ill, and my mother called me. She said no-one had any idea where his beehives were or what was going on with his business. We both were thinking that should he die it would be a crying shame that we would not be able to trace his legacy. That’s when I seriously began thinking about the honey business.”

As he recuperated, Mabela began talking to her father about learning the business and maybe, one day, taking over from him. She grins as she recalls that her father did not take her seriously at first. “You would have to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to get a compliment out of my father. But I know he’s very proud. I see it in his sense of urgency to help me or when he invites me to do hive inspections. He is doing a handover in a way.”

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