A cool head and a warm heart: how to produce organic and fair trade honey [partner story]
There's lots that we can learn from bees: alternative ways of working, serving the community and sharing. We talked to Luis Enrique Castañón Chavarría, Managing Director of Oikocredit’s fair trade and organic partner Miel Mexicana, about how bees cooperate, the beekeeping industry and its international customers.
How did Miel Mexicana get started?
It was me that first came up with the idea for the Miel Mexicana project. Which is why I have remained the cooperative’s director, even though I'm a veterinarian by profession. But my position was never important because we've always worked as a team. So, I had to educate myself about sociology, finance, economics and much more. Projects such as this require agility on many levels: mentally, psychologically, morally and economically. It is a business which requires both a cool head and a warm heart.
We started producing and exporting organic honey about 15 years ago, even though no one imagined that this would work. When we signed our first export agreement, it was the realisation of our dreams.
What does it mean to you personally to work in a cooperative?
The cooperative is the place where we turn our dreams into reality. A place where we can create a world in which we can grow, where everything is fair, where we cooperate and where we can show solidarity with others.
To us, the cooperative is a way of life. When we started out, a cooperative seemed the best way to combat poverty in our country. There were hardly any men left in our area, so many having immigrated to the US where they still work. The only people remaining were old people, women and children, living in extreme poverty. From the start, the idea was to create jobs for potential emigrants, so that they would stay in Mexico.
A team of small-scale producers joined forces and began producing honey. We managed to bring people from at least eight different ethnic groups together under one umbrella. The cooperative idea is a bit of a strange one in Mexico because it originates from Europe. We have adapted their model and taken into account the idiosyncrasies of our members, respecting and integrating them.
For many years now, we have been working on a social business model that enables companies to be successful – economically, ecologically and socially. We want this project to be emulated by others, so that our cooperative becomes the initiator of a movement.
Could you tell us more about the members of your cooperative?
Our producers live with nature, sometimes geographically quite far removed from one another, yet never alone in spirit. All family members work in the cooperative. In this world, everyone is looking to be part of something. The people live as an integrated family and community.
Beekeepers who need to do everything themselves cannot develop very well, because it is difficult to coordinate all the necessary tasks. In our cooperative, the producers make sure that they produce top-quality honey. Only then can the cooperative demand good prices. We, in administration, do the rest. We have worked with many people who would otherwise not have had a chance, because they didn't go to school or they didn't finish school, because they lived far away from the city or because they didn't have anyone to teach them. We have succeeded in enabling them to produce and export organic honey of excellent quality.
What challenges do you face in your work?
Since the very start of our cooperative, one of my main tasks has been to act as a translator between two worlds. On the one hand, we have customers whose thinking is strictly entrepreneurial. On the other hand, we have indigenous members who speak different languages yet not one word of Spanish. To bring these worlds together is not easy. The producers have to understand that honey sold in Europe must be of a certain quality and must be packaged in a certain way.
Producing organic honey in harmony with nature is no easy feat. We have to find suitable land in areas many kilometres away from towns and cities, so that we can produce ecologically. That means that our producers have to transport hives that can weigh 30, 40 or 50 kilos across long distances and place them in suitable locations. Many of our beekeepers have no running water in their homes, no neighbourhood school and sometimes not even a hospital. Once you realise this, you get a better idea of just how valuable and precious our products really are.
What does the partnership with Oikocredit mean to you?
When Oikocredit first approached us, we thought that obtaining loans would enable us to grow and strengthen our organisation. We were never concerned that Oikocredit as a lender would take our money…and certainly not our entire company. That's why we considered the proposal and decided to accept Oikocredit's support and collaborate with them. We had the feeling that this would advance our company in a sustainable manner. After all, the most important thing is to enhance our cooperative's position for the future, in terms of finance, organisation, tax and law.
What can we learn from bees?
Honey is a wonderful food source. It is not a sweetener, but rather a fully-fledged product that provides protein, minerals, vitamins and much more. Moreover, bees are extremely generous in the way they produce honey. They operate very similarly to our cooperative. Bees teach us that an alternative form of economy works, which is exclusively to the benefit of the community. As such, honey itself is already an alternative product, its raw material is the result of an alternative production process. Isn't that amazing?