Selling African-made honey from an office in Ottawa might not seem like the most conventional path to business success.
But then, Paul Whitney is used to taking the entrepreneurial road less travelled.
After decades of running their own businesses, the Alberta native and his partner Liz Connell were set to call it quits a few years ago and enjoy a retirement of tropical beaches and margaritas by the pool.
We are starting to see graduates from La Cité leave their mark in the agri-food sector, thanks to a more recent agriculture training programs.
Then they decided to “do something more interesting,” as Mr. Whitney puts it.
Inspired by their friend Dan Ball, who trains beekeepers to produce organic honey deep in the dense forests of northwest Zambia, the couple invested their retirement nest egg into an enterprise to help Mr. Ball market his products abroad.
It was the culmination of decades-long recruiting drive by Mr. Ball, a former missionary who started his honey venture in the 1990s in an effort to help remote African villagers become self-sufficient.
Mr. Whitney and Ms. Connell met Mr. Ball while they were living in neighbouring Zimbabwe, importing chemical recycling technology to the southern African nation. Back then, Mr. Whitney felt the time wasn’t right to get involved in the honey project. Mr. Ball “didn’t know a damn thing about business,” he says with a chuckle, and he wasn’t convinced the idea would fly.
Eventually, the couple returned to Canada and settled in Ottawa, where both had family. In town for a visit in 2012, Mr. Ball made another pitch. After giving it some thought, Mr. Whitney and Ms. Connell determined the time was right to join forces with their old friend, and the social enterprise now known as African Bronze Honey was born.
The couple “plunked down 100 grand” to buy a 20-ton container of honey – the equivalent of about 28,000 bottles – without having a clue where they’d store it or who would buy it.
“It showed up one day and then we realized, ‘My God, that’s a lot of bottles of honey,’” Mr. Whitney says, laughing. “We realized we had to sell it. We didn’t really know what the hell we were going to do.”
With backgrounds that included running a computer store, a design company and a seafood supplier, importing honey wasn’t exactly their forte. But they believed in Mr. Ball’s quest to create economic opportunities and a sustainable business model in some of the planet’s poorest and most remote locations, a mission reflected in their first slogan: “Changing the world one bottle of honey at a time.”
They started working with charitable organizations, selling the dark, rich product of wild African bees at fundraisers. But they soon realized they “needed to go deeper” and approached retailers, who were intrigued but wanted more than just honey.
“Almost all the big distributors refused us.”
“Almost all the big distributors refused us,” Mr. Whitney says. “They loved the story, they loved the product, they loved the project, but they said, ‘We need at least half a dozen skews.’”
So they began branching out, launching a range of honey-infused products from lip balm to throat lozenges. They’ve added to the line with a cinnamon-flavoured honey and a “hot honey” spiced with two types of chiles that “goes great on pizza and vanilla ice cream,” according to Mr. Whitney. Their newest item, a honey wine vinegar, is set to hit the market before Christmas.
A certified B-Corp and a member of the Fair Trade Federation, the company is now selling its goods at more than 200 retailers in North America, including Whole Foods outlets in Canada. Mr. Whitney and Ms. Connell have also tapped into what they see as massive potential in the wholesale market, partnering with other B-corps that are using their honey to inject unique flavours into their own products.
In the spring of 2016, for example, Beau’s Brewery launched a limited-edition beer called “Brew the Change” that featured the Ottawa firm’s honey. The 2,000-litre batch – or about 10,000 bottles – flew off the shelves, and Beau’s is considering doing another run.
“It was an incredible kickstart for us,” Mr. Whitney says.
The beer’s success caught the attention of fellow B-Corp New Belgian Brewing, a partner in the Brew the Change project. The fourth-largest craft brewery in the United States, Colorado-based New Belgian recently used African Bronze Honey in a creation of its own called Orange Honey Triple that quickly became its top-selling product.
New Belgian is looking at adding the brew to its standard lineup, which would give African Bronze Honey a steady customer to allow it to start importing large container-loads of product on a regular basis.
Mr. Beauchesne is a big fan of the honey, calling it “rich and flavourful.” But more than that, he’s impressed with the company’s commitment to producing healthy, organic products while helping its African suppliers build sustainable businesses – a cause near to the heart of the Vankleek Hill brewer, who is helping to launch a women-owned craft brewery in Rwanda.
“It kind of hit on a number of different marks for us,” he says of his collaboration with African Bronze Honey. “They are definitely working hard to be part of many different communities, both here and in Africa as well.”
Mr. Whitney is also in talks with other U.S. partners such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a couple of cosmetics manufacturers that are considering using the honey in moisturizers.
“I think what we’ve tried to do is ignite some imagination into the honey world,” he says. “We’ve asked people (to) rethink the food that you eat. It’s been a very interesting ride.”
Not that there haven’t been a few bumps along the way. An affable man with a gift for colourful turns of phrase, Mr. Whitney says the firm’s planned foray into big-time retail south of the border with Whole Foods 18 months ago never materialized because his operation wasn’t ready for prime time.
“We would’ve crashed and burned,” he says bluntly. “We would’ve been like Icarus and flown too close to the sun.”
Before it even makes it to store shelves, getting the honey to Canada requires a logistical high-wire act.
The Zambian beekeepers use traditional methods, fashioning hives out of bark and hollow logs and hauling the honey dozens of kilometres on foot to the nearest villages. Mr. Ball’s company brings big trucks as close as to those communities as roads will allow, where the honey is brought out in pails, inspected, weighed and graded.
Trucks transport the product to the edge of the forest, where it’s transferred into giant drums and taken to the capital city of Lusaka, a 12-hour drive. There, it’s processed and certified organic before being shipped in giant rail containers across the Namibian desert to the Atlantic Ocean for shipping to Europe and eventually North America.
But thanks to African Bronze Honey’s sponsorship deal with shipping giant UPS – part of its prize for winning a Startup Canada pitchfest two years ago – the journey from hive to plate has become a lot smoother.
“The process of getting it to the consumer is quite complicated,” Mr. Whitney concedes. “In order to be profitable, this has to be done on a larger scale. You’ve got to have your logistics organized. Having a company like UPS … their senior management and staff have just been awesome. It’s what’s allowed us the ability to think large.”
He believes African Bronze Honey is now on the verge of a breakthrough. After taking two years to move all of its initial 20-ton supply of honey, the company has sold that much in the last three months alone. Mr. Whitney expects the enterprise to turn a profit for the first time this fiscal year, with revenues forecast to rise from less than $100,000 last year to anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million in the next 12 months, depending on how many partnerships pan out.
“Things are changing very rapidly for us,” he says. “Now that we’ve taken time to develop these relationships, those orders of $1,000 are suddenly $50,000. This is the year we break out and become a real business.”
But beyond expanding his own company, he’s also hoping to spread Mr. Ball’s model to other developing countries.
In the past half-dozen years, the number of beekeepers Mr. Ball works with in Zambia has doubled to 10,000, who collect more than 1,200 tonnes of honey each year. Their annual incomes have almost doubled, and they are given language and math lessons in addition to beekeeping training.
Mr. Whitney says enterprises like Mr. Ball’s have the potential to change the lives of thousands of impoverished people around the world.
“We both are completely committed to the idea of benefit – that you can use … the credible power of business, the enormous weight of business, you can use it for good and you could make changes that no government could, ever,” he says with genuine passion.
“I’m very impressed at how companies, no matter how large they can be, can have a very significant and meaningful social impact as part of the bottom line in their company. It’s not just talk. People are actually now re-evaluating this consumer world that we have. I think we all owe it to all of ourselves and the next generations to create a better system.”