Follow the Honey: A journey towards Africa’s beekeeping

  • Brian Woerner gives the audience honey samples from Massachusetts, Chile, and Guinea. Boston, Mass., Nov. 12. Photo by Gaia De Simoni / BU News Service.

By Gaia De Simoni
BU News Service

BOSTON — In Swahili, the word “Machali” means to follow one’s instinct and one’s heart. It is an expression Brian Woerner, a Boston University Graduate alumnus, feels fond of.

“I am a big fan of this word. If you asked me in college, what I was going to do, I would not have answered this for sure,” said Woerner.

The Boston University 2018 International Education Week kicked off on November 12, with a honey-themed event hosted by Boston University Global Programs at Metcalf Trustee Center. The event took the public on a journey through Woerner’s experiences in Africa and gave a taste of South America and Africa’s honey samples provided by Follow the Honey, a Cambridge-based shop.

A native of Davis, California, Woerner had his first experience with bees and beekeeping in 2010, when he joined the Peace Corps and went to Guinea, West Africa.

“It was very humbling. These people who appeared to have so little were the most generous I had ever met,” he said.

There, he got involved in different projects, from juice extraction to wine production. Beekeeping was also among these projects. Woerner explained what they were doing in his village in Guinea, was a sort of hunter-gatherer approach. When someone spotted a wild hive on a tree, Peace Corps volunteers had to climb up a bamboo ladder, burn out the bees and take everything it was inside the hive.

He thought there could be a possibility for people to get honey more sustainably and he found out that Peace Corps Guinea had funds for beekeeping training. He started building boxes to contain hives, studying pest diseases management and processing products like wax and the honey itself.

After 22 months in Guinea, he was forced to evacuate due to Ebola and returned to California. He started thinking about graduate school and he applied to Boston University Questrom School of Business. In 2016, he started his “MBeeA,” as he called it, which prompted laughers from the audience

He crossed his path with bees again in fall 2016, when he was living in Cambridge and one of his friends gave him a jar of honey from a honey shop in Harvard Square, called Follow the Honey.

Then, on a cold autumn night, when he was taking out the trash wearing only shorts and flip-flops, Woerner locked himself out of his apartment. He thought it was the right time to visit Follow the Honey. He met the shop founder, Mary Canning, who told him about her initiatives in Africa, India and South America. There, she connects local beekeepers to the American market to help them sell their honey as a gourmet product.

Canning started beekeeping after her first husband died of cancer. She found it therapeutic. Then, she traveled to India with a group of widow beekeepers. Noticing the disparity between beekeepers there, she had an idea. She decided to start a “human rights company,” which would help indigenous people stimulate economic development through honey.

Woerner was first involved in the shop activities when he left the U.S. to start an internship in Tanzania, funded by Questrom, in summer 2016. He wanted to bring Tanzanian honey to the U.S. and launched a sister company, Follow the Honey Tanzania Ltd.

By starting this new business, he and Canning partnered with the Tanzanian government to bridge beekeepers to the U.S. market, but also to other international markets.

Worner said they have a network of 15,000 beekeepers in Tanzania, but not everybody is involved in the project and the amount of honey they can bring to the U.S. “is just a drop in a very very large swimming pool.”

Several undergraduate and graduate students took part in the event. Brandy Moser, a BU undergraduate student, was among them. Moser, a honey lover, said she had the chance to look at honey from an international perspective.

“I ran into Follow the Honey last year and finding out that there is a bigger purpose to the organization was really cool,” said Moser, who works as an organic farmer.

Participants also had the chance to get in touch with the African Studies Center, the West African Research Association and the BU Beekeeping Club.

BU Beekeeping is an open club whose members teach people about bees, how to take care of them and how their life cycles work.

“If they need help, we can get them sugar water to try to help them through the winter,” said Allie Cole, hive master at BU Beekeeping.

Woerner, who is now sales chief at Follow the Honey, finds himself again in a period of uncertainty like the ones he experienced after his journeys. Currently, the company is in a transitional period, trying to legitimize its international relationships.

He said he thinks it is good not knowing what one wants to do. He concluded by advising undergraduates and graduates in the audience to keep “your opportunities and your options open.”

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