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An Untapped Market: How Ojok Simon is training the next generation of Ugandan beekeepers

An Untapped Market: How Ojok Simon is training the next generation of Ugandan beekeepers

Blind beekeeper Ojok Simon won the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2017, becoming one of the Prize’s first three recipients. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners this month. Read our update on Ahmet Ustunel and stay posted for news on blind baker Penny Melville-Brown later this month.

Ojok Simon starts his day with honey. He wakes up at his home in Gulu, Uganda where he lives with his wife and five children, boils water, adds a squeeze of lemon and finishes it off with a spoonful of smoky, tangy honey produced by thousands of Africanized “killer” bees he tends at his non-profit bee farm, Hive Uganda.

He then leaves his house to head to the source of the honey. He walks 10 minutes along dirt roads flanked by tall grasses to the main roadside where he hops on a two-wheeler and travels along what he calls the “dancing roads” of the rural, agricultural district.

Ojok Simon addresses a classroom of Hive Uganda trainees.
Ojok Simon addresses a classroom of Hive Uganda trainees.

As an inaugural 2017 Holman Prizewinner, Ojok set out to train other blind people in rural Gulu how to keep bees as a means of livelihood — and he’s achieved just that. Since winning the prize last year, Ojok and his six fellow trainers have more than tripled their capacity, training 36 blind and low vision beekeepers within a 40-kilometer radius of the Hive Uganda homebase. As of August, he was slated to train 11 more before the end of his Holman Prize year.

Ojok established Hive Uganda in 2013. Partially blind since childhood, Ojok observed the disparaging mindsets around disability and rampant unemployment in the blindness community, and saw an opportunity to help his blind peers cultivate a better quality of life.

“The Holman Prize has helped us improve our infrastructure and expand our operations,” he says, noting the significant boost to capacity that the Prize allowed for. “We have strengthened our foundation base and opened the door for more connections and networking all over the world. Even after the money from the Holman Prize is spent, it will continue to give hope for other people to see and believe in what we’re doing.”

Ojok exudes warmth and optimism. His smile is boisterous and welcoming, lacking restraint. He possesses the kind of openness that often fades into adulthood, lessened by the strain of responsibility and hardship. In light of Ojok’s experience with violence at the hands of Ugandan rebels — his infectious joy seems even more remarkable.

In 1989, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked Ojok’s home in the middle of the night. Nine years old at the time, Ojok stood up in bed — confused and half asleep. As the rebels searched for children, and boys in particular, they hit him multiple times in the side of the head with the blunt end of a gun to prevent him from fleeing. Due to a lack of proper medical attention, Ojok progressively lost sight in his left eye, with his right eye suffering damage as well.

“Growing up in an area with such conflict, you experience a lot of trauma,” he says. “It’s at the core of my people. So many people, like myself, have lost their vision because of war. After the incident, I thought there was no hope for my life. Life was painful. My dream had been to be a doctor and serve my peers. But after I lost my sight I thought I would not study or gain the skills I needed. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my uncle was beaten and also lost his sight. He gave me a way to follow — he was a role model for me.”

Legally blind by 1993, Simon learned braille in one year and joined a blind branch of high school in Gulu. With some basic rehabilitation, Ojok started to move forward and tackle his disability head on.

Fast forward to 2002 when Simon obtained a brailler and started school at Lakeside College in the capital city of Kampala. Here, Simon honed his skills on a typewriter, which made assimilating into this school much easier with his non-braille using cohorts. He graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in development studies and became the first visually impaired person in Gulu to finish this level of schooling.

And though Ojok was deliberate in his pursuit of education, his entrée into beekeeping was a chance encounter. One night, lost in the fields near his house, Ojok stumbled upon a clay pot, inhabited by a beehive. A barrage of bee stings sent him packing, but Ojok returned to harvest the honey. After bringing the honey back to his family and quietly pilfering another clay pot for more bees to colonize — he had the makings of a budding bee farm. Word quickly spread through his community that there was honey in production, and that the beekeeper was blind. They had to see, and taste, for themselves.

Ojok stands with a group of friends and fellow trainers, holding jars of Hive Uganda honey.
Ojok stands with a group of friends and fellow trainers, holding jars of Hive Uganda honey.

“Tasting that honey, I found myself with a lot of energy,” says Ojok. “When we started serving honey to the people who didn’t have it, they wanted to come and see for themselves. They could not imagine a blind person being able to provide honey to the family and the community. I started building new friendships and community ties.”

And this is the very crux of Ojok’s work through the Holman Prize. The outcomes are two-fold: Hive Uganda trains blind people a valuable life skill, and in doing so, positions them as experts and leaders in a nationally viable market that directly supports their communities.

As the main agricultural region of northern Uganda, approximately 90% of Gulu’s inhabitants work in an industry centered around cotton, tea, coffee, corn, sorghum and tobacco. But according to experts, there is a huge potential to expand beekeeping and honey production in the region. Uganda harvests only 1% of a potential 500,000 tons of honey per year. Despite being only one of five countries in sub-Saharan Africa licensed to export honey to the EU, Uganda has failed to meet home-grown demands for honey, let alone export to this potential market.

The training model is economically and environmentally sound — though challenges remain, including locating blind participants and continuing to secure sources of funding, like the Holman Prize.

A big part of Hive Uganda’s work involves direct outreach to nearby villages to identify blind participants, as well as securing venues for training groups in remote locations. Trainees are an even split of men and women, and range widely in age. Hive Uganda funds trainees’ daily commute and supports them in renting accommodations when necessary. Trainings are split into theoretical and practical training, with 10 days of classroom work and 10-12 days of fieldwork, where trainees start working directly with the hives. The trainings also builds in two to three days of foundational orientation and mobility — i.e. cane skills — which is part of their theoretical curriculum.

Ojok says his courses are standard beekeeping courses with slight adjustments in technique for blind beekeepers. Essentially, he says, blind beekeepers rely more on a sense of touch and smell to tell if a beehive is healthy. When the frame of a hive is heavy with honey and gives off the subtle aroma of sweet corn — it’s probably ready for harvesting. Other blind-friendly techniques include placing landmarks like wooden rails and fences to and from the hives.

When the trainees finish a course, the trainers furnish them with four “hollow-tree” hives and help with transport to their chosen local site. It’s during this trip that they involve the local community, including one-on-one trainings with family members and neighbors.

“Involving the community builds self-sustainability,” says Ojok. “Here we are trying to change the mindset of people towards blind people. Our students become very sensitive to community development. They will teach the community about safe water practices or provide health education to their community. They become community leaders.”

And it’s through these outcomes that Ojok realized, perhaps he had become a doctor after all, though in a slightly different sense than he had imagined.

“I don’t even regret that I became blind and didn’t become a doctor,” he says. “Because I’m serving the people, my people — the marginalized, the forgotten society.”

And through reframing his own differences as a strength, he’s realized that perhaps we’re best off when we stop valuing people for their similarities, and start accepting and loving our fellow humans for what makes them unique.

“Nobody will ever be the same as another person. We all have differences, it’s how we distinguish each other. But most importantly, we are all human beings, sharing the same oxygen. We all have a brain and we all need support from one another, whether you’re blind or you’re not blind. What is blindness and what is non-blindness? It’s all about perception.”

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy CervenkaConchita Hernández and Red Szell. Ojok and his fellow 2017 prizewinners will visit San Francisco in November 2017 to speak at the LightHouse Gala.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.