Dressed in a protective suit and a mesh head-net, Nazak Mir approaches a hive box and carefully detaches a comb from its side.
Confident and experienced, he gently brushes the bees off the comb and scrapes an amber resin-like substance off the surface. In a nearby workshop, he places the comb in a centrifuge, and with each twirl, clear, golden honey, flavoured by the surrounding pine trees and acacia pours into a jar.
Forty years ago, when war broke out in Afghanistan, Mir fled his home in Paktia province along with his family and sought safety in Buner district some 150 kilometres from Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. There, in exile, he found something he had not expected to — a chance to follow in his father footsteps as a beekeeper.
While cultivating bee colonies was not entirely new to Mir, it took three years with no income for the father of seven to start his own business. A visit by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to the refugee camp where Mir was sheltering set in motion his career as an entrepreneur, teacher and mentor on beekeeping.
“I joined a training run by UNHCR on beekeeping and once completed, I was provided with five honeybee boxes and bees to start my business,” he recalled. Reflecting the culture of generosity in the region, a Pakistani friend from the host community offered him a piece of land for the bee farm.
"Having a skill is a blessing"
On the same hilltop where his business began some forty years ago, Mir has created a honeybee haven, with more than 100 hives and works with his brother and five sons. He supports his family by earning almost one million rupees (approx. USD 5,000) annually by selling 100-150 boxes of honey. “We well two types of honey, Sidr and Acacia. Sidr honey is more profitable,” he said.
He has also trained thousands of Afghan refugees and locals across Pakistan in the business, making a substantial contribution to Pakistan’s economy, a major exporter of honey.
“Having a skill is a blessing,” noted Mir, who realized that a significant number of people within his community were unemployed. “I taught and trained 80 percent of the villagers, both refugee and Pakistani.” Mir estimates that 1,700 families in the Koga refugee village in Buner are associated with this business, in addition to others who have established bee colonies in other parts of the country.
Bringing both refugee and host communities together is key to his success, with a business plan inspired by the honeybee queen who helps regulate the unity of the beehive colony. “Their life symbolizes teamwork and growth. Strong connections and discipline hold them in the hive together,” said the grey-haired Afghan refugee while pointing towards the bees moving in and out of a hive’s entrance.
“[Pakistani friends] gave us land for our business and also protect and care for our bee farms”
UNHCR has worked to create opportunities for refugees to be economically self-reliant. Livelihoods programmes, including training, support to start-up businesses, outreach to the private sector to facilitate internship programmes, are all aimed at enhancing self-reliance of refugees while also fostering greater social cohesion with host communities.
Livelihoods and other supported programmes are also assisting host community members as part of an international effort falling under a Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees to increase contributions towards communities who have generously shared their resources with refugees for decades.
Lauding the role of host communities, Mir said that their Pakistani friends have been very helpful to them in every way. “They gave us land for our business and also protect and care for our bee farms,” he said.
With over 650,000 Afghan refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including thousands in Buner like Nazak Mir, refugees are contributing to peaceful and social cohesion in Pakistan.
“Honeybee-keeping business is a good example where refugees not only learned the skills of the honeybee-farming, but also started up income generation activities,” noted Gayrat Ahmadshoev, Head of UNHCR office in Peshawar. “This has also helped the host population in their own income generation activities.”
And yet beekeeping is not without its challenges, including climate change which has decimated bee populations globally. “We see climate change also affecting our business,” highlighted Mir. More recently, wet weather, including heavier than normal seasonal rains, has resulted in shorter flowering seasons which prevents bees from producing honey. “We have no other option but to feed them sugar water in order to produce honey.”
The journey of Nazak Mir doesn’t stop here. Giving back to his community has always been a driving force behind his business, and profits have allowed him to establish a school in his refugee village. With pride he shares that many of the students have continued their education and become doctors and engineers.
With a protective net veil firmly in place, Nazak Mir, on the spur of the moment, gently lifts a queen bee out of the hive. “This queen inspired me.”