Peter Welcome to our travel podcast, we’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re in South Africa, where a futuristic charity is creating a hive of activity that’s already changing the conservation landscape in a most unusual way – with bees on the front line. Now we hear a lot about the battle to save rhinos and elephants from poachers, but it seems that the humble honey bee has also a major role to play in breathing life into rural communities and protecting the international tourism is the lifeblood. In Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape, we caught up with Di Luden, executive director of Community Conservation Fund Africa.
Felice Welcome to Action Packed Travel.
Peter Now, am I right in thinking that May the 20th is a very important date in the bee calendar and indeed in your calendar?
Di Absolutely. Thank you very much for having me. On the 20th of May is World Bee Day.
Peter So just tell us what that is, what’s involved?
Di Basically World Bee Day is about bringing awareness to a bee population that is very, very much endangered at the moment, and trying to let the public understand the importance of bees. They say that the food that we eat, 80% of it is due to bee pollination. So I don’t think we really understand how important bees are. So World Bee Day is literally about bringing some shine and some glory to probably the world’s most unsung hero.
Felice What sort of things go on at World Bee Day?
Di Well, for us specifically…I’m working with Community Conservation Fund Africa, which is a charity based in South Africa. For us specifically, we’ve got a really exciting programme launching – it’s Adopt a Beehive. Our charity was founded by a hotel group called the Mantis Connection, and their slogan is Man and Nature Together is Sustainable and CCFA is their foundation. Together with the Mantis Collection, we are launching our Adopt a Beehive programme whereby any guest that goes to our hotel can adopt their own hive, which will be personalised with their name, and they will receive quarterly updates on how their bees are doing, they will get a certificate to say that they’ve adopted a hive and most importantly they will just be working toward protecting bees.
Peter Do the guests get to take the honey out of the hive themselves? That sounds a pretty dangerous business to me.
Di So we will offer beekeeping experiences and these obviously have to be prearranged. But absolutely, we can suit our guests up in the protective gear, we can take them out and they can extract their own honey. The most important part for us specifically, though, would be the education, because people don’t realise how important bees are. So the bee experience would be definitely…you can extract your own honey, you can take it home with you. But you would also learn about why we are doing this and what’s so important about bees, because I don’t think you would realise there are so many different types of bees. The specific one that we are working with at the moment is the honeybee.
Peter And how many honeybees you’re talking about here? Millions, I guess?
Di Millions. Every hive attracts approximately 50,000 bees. We have already put down 120 beehives, so that’s approximately 9 million bees. And on World Bee Day we are launching another 70 beehives. I haven’t done the maths – that is 70 x 50,000.
Peter I make that another 3.5 million bees.
Felice Is there anything that can go wrong with beehives? I mean, can all of bees escape or something like that? What do you do to keep them there?
Di Basically, our project is not specifically about how much honey can we can we extract. Unfortunately, with beekeeping, I think in most places it becomes a commercial business, so people are moving the queen bee constantly to try and create more honey. For us, it’s a conservation project; it’s very much about creating bees and creating a sustainable place for them to live. We would literally place the hives out near specific trees and plants that attract bees. And they just arrive; they come on their own. They are attracted to the hive, to the base. And then once a queen bee solidifies itself in a hive, the colony will just grow and grow and grow. But I guess the main problem is that honey has become a commercial business. So ours is about protecting the bees rather than producing honey.
Peter So what we are doing is highlighting the plight. The bee population worldwide, I think has been decreasing in recent years with lots of problems with disease. And as we all know, indeed, that you really do need bees for humanity to survive. So you are highlighting the problems?
Di Very much so. And then secondly, sort of on the side, because it’s very much one of our main goals, is that when our guests decide to adopt a beehive – I like I’ve said already – they do get a certificate, they will be kept up to date as to how their bees are surviving. But most importantly is that the percentage of that will go towards us creating micro apiaries for local communities. So Community Conservation Fund Africa is a charity where we try to do a project for our hotels. So every hotel that Mantis has, we try to create a community conservation project around there, so that when they are travelling, they can experience something, they can have an eco experience or conscious travel experience at each of our properties.
We then want to take that one step further and then give back to the community where the property is based. So the more hives that are adopted, the more micro apiaries we can set up. We would give these micro apiaries to the local community; we would educate them as to how to look after the hive, we would give them the protective gear and then they would be in charge of their own hives and that honey would be sold back to us and then we would either use it in our hotels or sell it to our guests. So we would then be creating a sustainable business for them, which is amazing.
I think it’s important for me to say that at CCFA we are obviously a non-profit organisation, but we are fundraising and grant giving. So we are collaborating with Honeybee Heroes and they are the company that will look after the bees, they set up the hives for us, they will look after the hives, and they are based in the Western Cape. So they are our joint partner in this project that we are launching on the 20th of May.
Felice And do you live in the Western Cape yourself?
Di I don’t. I live in the Eastern Cape. So the 120 hives that we have already put in place, they are based here in the Eastern Cape. So those ones I’ve had a lot to do with, but we want to expand this project now. So that is why we’ve collaborated with Honeybee Heroes, because we can do this in the Western Cape and obviously we have lots of tourists that go to Cape Town, so it would be just an amazing experience to be able to offer people when they visit our properties within Cape Town.
Peter So tell us about the hotel group, are these are five star hotels and how many of them are there?
Di It’s a boutique hotel group and they have three types of hotels. There’s Waterways, which is where we’ve got the Zambesi Queen collection – it’s houseboats that are based on the Chobe River, very, very beautiful. Then we have the boutique hotels, which are obviously smaller hotels within the cities, they’re not large hotels, and then we have the eco hotels. So these are exactly what I’m talking about; based here in the Eastern Cape we’ve got the Founder’s Lodge – this is actually based on Shamwari.
The founder of Shamwari, Adrian Gardiner, is actually the founder of Mantis. And he did sell Shamwari to someone a few years ago, but he kept his own home on the land and then converted that into a six-bedroom lodge. It has traversing rights on Shamwari and it’s absolutely beautiful. So on this specific property is where we would like to create a proper beehive experience where guests can see hives, touch hives, we even want a glass beehive so that you can you can really see what’s happening inside the hive. You can have a proper interactive experience. So, yes, this is really exciting. The hotel group, they have about 50 hotels between all of Africa, so South Africa, West, East and North Africa, actually.
Felice Where is the flagship hotel of the group?
Di It’s hard to say. The head offices here in Port Elizabeth, which is where I live, Shamwari obviously, Founder’s Lodge would always be the flagship because Adrian…that’s what put him on the map. And so Founder’s Lodge by Mantis is probably the flagship base here in the Eastern Cape.
Felice Do you have some other projects, not just bees?
Di Yes, absolutely. Some of the other projects we do, again they’re always surrounding the hotels. Based here in the Eastern Cape, we are greening the community. So there’s a township that sits right alongside one of our hotels called Hopewell Conservation Estate. The staff that work on Hopewell, they’ve created their own co-operative. It’s just a small company. They approached us and they said every time they leave the conservation estate and they walk over the hill and walk home, they realise the stark contrast between the green conservation estate and then the dry, barren brown land where they live.
They approached us and they said through their cooperative they would love to green their community. One thing I think that’s important to stress about this is that we are a charity, but we are not here to walk into a community and to say to them, ‘This is what we think you need where you live.’ It’s more about them approaching us and saying to us, ‘We think that this would work,’ and we will then help you. But it’s not about us giving you something. We’re giving you a hand up, not a hand out and we’re going to listen to the community and take what it is that they want to do and help them to implement it. So when they arrived at this amazing idea, we jumped at the opportunity.
We are currently working on greening the community project whereby we want to plant 600 trees this year. The trees will grow in schools. So we had to choose schools because what you don’t realise is there’s lots of cows, cattle that roam in these areas that would eat the trees. So we had to choose areas that have fences so that the trees can be protected. We also needed to choose areas that have access to water because trees need to be planted. So basically what we are doing is corporates can adopt a school and we will put 10 trees into a certain school. So you adopt a school which actually is 10 trees, and that’s how we are going to move around the community to take it from the brown space to a green space. And we’re really excited about this project. There’s a lot more behind the scenes other than just greening, but this is one of our very exciting projects.
Peter And how long does it take to green a community, are these very quick growing trees?
Di No, it’s not going to be quick, but we’re starting with the trees. We’ve chosen three trees spekboom, which is called Elephant Fruit, an indigenous tree for South Africa. It provides a lot of oxygen – so it’s really good at creating oxygen. We then have fruit trees specifically for the schools so that the kiddies have fruit to eat. They can either eat it or they can use it as an exchange for something else – you can trade fruit.
The third is a hardwood tree. These are trees that provide a lot of shade. The idea as well being in these schools, that kids have somewhere to sit underneath – shade for them. So those are the three trees. Once the trees are in place, we will then start with food gardens. And that is obviously much quicker; it’s much more rapid to see green. But we want to really start with a vision, a 10-year vision with the trees and then we will start with food gardens, which will also be in the school. So they will then obviously be able to grow their own veggies.
Felice What sort of things would they grow?
Di Vegetables mainly, and we actually have a partnership with someone who will help us. Basically, they only need two meters by one meter – that will create enough food per month for four people. So it’s really small areas that will allow them to to feed a family of four for a month. And it’s very, very, very cheap, because it starts literally with seedlings. So it’s an amazing project that we’re not in that phase just yet.
Peter Tell us about the funding of it? Quite a lot of this is funded by adoption. So people are adopting a tree, are they?
Di Correct. The idea of CCSA was when when it was founded was ‘let’s use the hotel industry to generate funding, because at the end of the day, people are coming to Africa to view our wildlife and if we don’t start to save wildlife, there won’t be any tourism. They won’t be coming in. So let’s use the tourists to help us preserve conservation and wildlife.’ And that’s really how the charity was born. The idea is to use our guests to either make adoption or donations.
Most of the time, if you visit our property, included into your rate is a conservation levy that will come to our charity. Obviously, we will be taking you on these excursions so you might feel a pull to get more involved in one or another. We also use our suppliers, so we try and create procurement. In our hotels we try to use plastic-free, eco-friendly amenities or whatever it is in the room. So those suppliers will approach us and we will then give them access to our hotels and they will make a donation to the charity. So it’s very much about using the hotel and tourism industry to raise our funding.
Felice And how does the charity help wildlife in particular?
Di So it’s all about empowering and uplifting community members so that they preserve wildlife, because at the end of the day, they are the ones that are living alongside the wildlife. We feel if we can create a sustainable food source for community members, they are not going to be tempted into bush meat hunting because they have food. If we can create a sustainable income for them, they are not going to be tempted into poaching because they have income coming in. So it’s very much about working with the people to preserve the wildlife, so it’s not really about just looking at one, it’s about looking at both and then obviously preserving wildlife.
We do projects of all sorts of things, not only bees. We’re very much involved with a project actually, which has bees included in it, but elephants in Namibia. The elephants were trampling the crops of the community members, and so they approached us to help them put an electric fence up so that they could save their crops. Because what was happening was obviously if an elephant tramples all of your food, your natural reaction is to kill that elephant because it’s your food, it’s your livelihood. So we were trying to come up with a way, OK, how can we make this that we can save their food and save the elephants? So we came up with putting an electric fence up.
Another thing that the community then told us was if we help them to put beehives around this fence, elephants, don’t go near…they’re disturbed by having these beehives there and it keeps the elephants away from the fence and from their food. So we’re very much involved in all sorts of things…gorillas in Uganda. It’s not only bees, but we are really trying to create the project and bring the project closer to our communities where the hotels are based, so that it’s very much in line with the staff that are working in our hotels. We are impacting their community, their friends, their family and giving back to them.
Peter I like the idea of bees policing the community. That’s good.
Di Absolutely. Policing the elephants. I mean, when would you ever think of that?
Felice Are elephants scared of bees?
Di I think they’re scared of them, but they’re just a proper deterrent. But I’m not sure exactly what the scientific reasoning is.
Peter It’s very interesting idea you have there: the very small and the very big.
Di Absolutely. It’s very impressive.
Felice You told us about the charity. When did you first get involved in it yourself?
Di I started the charity three years ago; it’s a little bit sad because the charity is only three years old. We’ve done some amazing work, but obviously the first year was a good year, the second year was a Covid year, and now we are trying to bring ourselves back up. So it was three years ago, 2018 the foundation was launched. I got involved right from the start. So it’s been a huge learning experience for me.
I used to work overseas, actually worked for a Russian billionaire for nine years. So it’s been a complete life change to go from that to working for local communities based in South Africa. But it’s literally been life-changing for me, it’s completely changed my life. I’m so grateful for that opportunity.
Felice Where did you work overseas exactly for the Russian billionaire?
Di I worked on superyachts originally and then I ended up moving land-based for him professionally. So then I helped build his yacht so that these types of people, they get bored of the billionaire boat, so I helped build them and I lived in Germany.
Peter Huge career change there.
Di It’s the polar opposite and to be fair, I probably never thought I would land in South Africa. I’m very, very passionate about South Africa but my life led me overseas from a very young age; I never, ever saw myself moving back. But if you do ever get the opportunity to meet Adrian Gardner, you’ll understand how I did land up here. Once he decides on something, he is very persuasive. He decided that I was going to help him with his charity and that was that, there was no going back.
Felice He’s your boss?
Di He’s my boss and he’s the founder of Mantis Collection.
Felice You were born in Port Elizabeth?
Di I was born in East London, which is not your London. East London is in South Africa; it’s also in the Eastern Cape. I went to school in Grahamstown, which is an hour and a half away. Obviously now I’m in Port Elizabeth because the Mantis head office is based here.
Felice What do you see yourself doing in the next few years?
Di That’s a tricky question. You know, for me personally, as I say, we’ve only been going for three years and we’ve got such amazing hopes and dreams. Coming back to South Africa and realising how grateful people can be when you give them an opportunity, it’s just something that’s life changing. For the next five years I want to stay exactly where I am and just make sure that we can bring all of our projects to fruition. And if we can even change just 50 people’s lives in the next five years, that’s enough for me. We can help to save certain species within those five years…absolutely incredible. We just want to grow these projects now. You know, they all in baby phase and we now need them to explode.
Peter Well, certainly May 20th International Bee Day should get your project buzzing, so to speak.
Di Absolutely. Be Kind: Adopt a Hive – that’s our slogan.
Felice If people want to find out more, can you tell them where should they look?
Di Yes, they can go to our website. That’s www.ccfa.africa and they can adopt the hive on there, they can adopt a tree, and they can just also learn more about our projects
Peter To book a hotel?
Di To book a hotel it’s www.mantiscollection.com
Peter Di Luden, thank you very much indeed for coming on the show. And we wish you the very best of luck with Community Conservation Fund, Africa and The Bee Project.
Di Thank you very much, Peter. Thank you so much Felice. Lovely to meet you.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]
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