Auburn water researchers using bees to help Kenya with nutrition, income and river protection

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – In Kenya, traditional cultures place a high value on honey and related products of the beehive – in the past it was part of the dowry or “bride price” for marriage, and a man needed to have at least 20 liters of choice honey to present to a prospective father-in-law when asking for his daughter’s hand.

More than just a tradition, this commodity could be the key to improving many aspects of Kenyan lives.

Auburn University’s Global Water Watch has joined with Kenya’s Green Belt Movement to find innovative ways of linking honey production with improved nutrition, higher incomes, community development and river protection.

“Honey has been an important part of the human diet for millennia, and gathering wild honey predates agriculture in many parts of the world,” said William Deutsch, Global Water Watch director. “We believe we can improve production, and in turn their lives and livelihoods, through cleaner water while also helping the environment.”

The Global Water Watch program, established at Auburn more than 20 years ago, is a worldwide network of community-based water monitoring groups that has worked in almost a dozen countries with citizen groups that often include indigenous peoples. These include the Quichua of Ecuador, Quechua and Aymara of Peru, Akha of Thailand and Tala-Andig of the Philippines, among others.

“Cross-cultural perspectives from all over the world have greatly enhanced our understanding of how people relate to and value their aquatic resources,” Deutsch said.

In 2012, the Green Belt Movement organization in Kenya contacted Global Water Watch through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The group was founded in 1977 by Wangari Maathai, who was one of the first Kenyan students to receive a scholarship to study in the United States as part of a precursor program to the Peace Corps, originated by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1959. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for raising public awareness about the environment and exposing illegal logging. She died in 2011, but the staff has continued with her environmental vision.

Following two trips to Kenya by Auburn researchers, the EPA funded a one-year pilot project in a cooperative agreement with the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a nongovernmental organization from Washington, D.C.

Deutsch and his colleagues in October 2013 initiated water monitoring and environmental education activities in the Upper Tana River Watershed that originates between Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare Range of mountains. The Tana River is one of the largest in the country and provides much of the water for the capital city, Nairobi.

Scores of community members from four areas of the watershed have begun to attend workshops to learn how to test water, and they are now establishing 100 monitoring sites on several streams and drinking water supplies. Many of these volunteers have previously participated in Green Belt Movement activities such as tree planting, beekeeping and other forms of community development.

Deutsch plans to return to Kenya in mid-March to conduct more workshops for new community members and to establish new water monitoring sites.

“The tree planting of the Green Belt Movement and the watershed monitoring and stewardship of Global Water Watch seemed like a natural fit,” Deutsch said, “but a beekeeping component added an important dimension to the project. The residents can help with our water-monitoring while improving their honey production.”

Among the necessary tests of honey quality for commercial marketing, assurance that the product is free from E. coli is also critical. Plans are under way to adapt simple E. coli water tests for testing honey.

“A steady flow of high-quality honey can net a Kenyan farmer a much greater income than most other agricultural crops that the farmer can produce,” Deutsch said.

With the growth of cities and the expansion of supermarkets, the demand for honey has created opportunities for mass production and modern marketing. The Kenyan Ministry of Livestock is promoting beekeeping, and development organizations such as USAID have provided grants to beekeepers to expand their operations.

“Many more producers are needed to fully meet the domestic demands for honey, let alone those of international markets,” Deutsch said.

NOTE: This feature story is based on a 2014 Auburn Speaks article written by William Deutsch of Auburn University’s Global Water Watch and Njogu Kahare of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. The Auburn Speaks book, with the theme of food systems, safety and security, will be released during Auburn’s Research Week April 14-17. More information about Research Week is available at

Charles Martin, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (, or Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (