Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW

Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW
Click on this photo for a video of "Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee". Photo by Daniel Bahmani

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Exploring Turkey’s honey trails, empowering women entrepreneurs

12 February 2012 / ALYSON NEEL, İSTANBUL
Imagine.

You are wandering along a winding path that cuts through a grassy meadow. The sky above you and the earth below you stretch on, interrupted only by jagged cliff faces and majestic mountain peaks in the far distance.

The brilliant sun warms your face as you drink in the beauty and serenity of nature in its purest form. You breathe in deeply as the fragrance of apple intermingled with hazelnut lingers about you.

And then you hear it. The sound that indicates you are near. At first it’s a barely audible buzz, but as you venture closer the humming intensifies. There before you stand rows of boxes curling to the shape of the hills rising and falling beneath you.

The village locals hug and kiss you, not as tourists or foreigners, but as guests and family.

And then the long-awaited moment arrives. A woman donning white coveralls and a veil gracefully dips her hand into one of the boxes and brings a golden, sticky substance to your lips. You close your eyes and savor the fresh, organic flavor of Turkish honey.

The adventure on which you’ve embarked is Balyolu (Honey Road), the first honey-tasting walking tour of its kind in Turkey.

The seven-day journey in northeastern Turkey leads Balyolu explorers down ancient nomadic walking routes, on which merchants traveling to and from the old Armenian capital and trade hub, Ani, roamed hundreds of years ago.

Balyolu adventurers crisscross these roads from village to village, stopping to sample local honey and cheeses, learn about local wildlife and artisan culture and explore one of Turkey’s wild frontiers. After trekking six to 10 miles each day, Balyolu pioneers relax, eat and stay with locals in their homes and village yurts.

Cat Jaffee, 25-year-old Fulbright Scholar and founder of Balyolu, calls the exciting venture a “five-sense experience.” “This truly is unlike any other tour in Turkey,” Jaffee confidently told Sunday’s Zaman.

And for at least two reasons, Jaffee is right.

Not only does Balyolu offer the exclusive experience of exploring ancient nomadic trade routes and staying under the roofs of Turkish villagers, but the non-profit also gives back to both the environment and female entrepreneurs in the region.

Social good can be oh-so-sweet

Burcu Uzer met Jaffee while volunteering -- first at the Turkish Festival in Washington, D.C., and then later while she was researching for Turkey’s social entrepreneurs at Ashoka, a project Jaffee was leading.

“I recall her mentioning Balyolu at that time and seeing her passion even in the rough idea stage,” said Uzer, who has lived in DC for the past nine years, six of which she worked at the Smithsonian Institution.

But Uzer, who is now the media and fundraising professional for Balyolu, told Sunday’s Zaman she is moving back to Turkey. “What makes Balyolu unique is the marriage of two powerful tools of development -- tourism and women’s empowerment,” she said. Uzer described eco-tourism as having “positive rippling effects” in that, in addition to spurring job creation and raising cultural awareness and understanding, it also “protects the environment if it’s done in a sustainable way. And, of course, the protection of the environment has a direct effect on our project as the bees need the untouched flora to produce and pollinate.”

The inspiration behind Balyolu and what truly sets the nonprofit apart, though, is how it gives back to women in eastern Turkey by empowering them to become entrepreneurs.

In fact, with the right amount of support, Jaffee asserted, “Women in Turkey’s Northeast are in a position to lead an organic beekeeping revolution.”

Jaffee, who has studied and lived among locals in northeastern Turkey on and off for years, said she knows the struggles faced by women in the region.

She knows the average income for a family in rural Turkey is about $20 per month, according to recent figures from the Turkish Statistics Institute (TURKSTAT). Jaffee knows women’s unemployment in Turkey ranks among the highest worldwide. And she knows from the number of women she has met, talked and lived with how engrained sexual violence is in northeastern Turkish culture.

But Jaffee also knows the region is poised for an economic revolution of the sweetest kind, and women will be the ones to lead it.

Pointing to the more than 9,000 varieties of flowers, incredible altitude variation and the indigenous, hardy Kafkas bee, Jaffee said: “The environment is as ideal as you are going to find for organic beekeeping. Beekeepers come from across Turkey to be here, and they have made this migration for hundreds of years.”

After visiting male beekeepers around the region to determine if they can be organic-certified, Jaffee said it is women, not men who will lead the future of organic beekeeping in Turkey. Most men have been beekeeping for years and already have up to 100 hives. “To purchase new unpainted hives, to acquire organic wax, to make sure all of the beekeepers in the area are organic, to stop migrating to warmer fruit crops in the winter, to stop feeding the bees sugar, to essentially start all over and then hope to pass certification would cost them thousands of lira,” Jaffee said.

Women, on the other hand, are new on the beekeeping scene, said Jaffee, mentioning the group of women who recently graduated from a three-month organic beekeeping course with the Marmara Group. These rookie female beekeepers have fewer hives, which allows them to experiment and learn from their mistakes.

And it’s not just older women readying themselves to brave the new frontier of organic beekeeping.

“From the ages of 17 to 80, beekeeping spans generations of women,” said Jaffee, as she tells the story of 17-year-old Duygu, who is likely one of the youngest certified beekeepers in Turkey.

Duygu, who just finished taking her university placement exam, is among five women under the age of 23 keeping bees in her village. Some of the girls would like to become beekeeping teachers and professional beekeepers, while others told Jaffee it would remain a hobby.

“While courses such as these [Marmara Group] have been done in the past and many women eventually do give up because they lack the right support and connection to markets, a long-term program that provides these services would help them launch this new skill into a full-fledged profession as a local, organic honey leader,” Jaffee said. “This would be the hope of Balyolu.”

Not only is the honey-tasting walking tour led and inspired by local women who are training to become world-class beekeepers and entrepreneurs, but Jaffee said the nonprofit also plans to pump proceeds from these tours back into the community to support these women in the form of marketing training, organic beekeeping workshops and rural business incubation.

In what she dubs the “Sweet Grant Program,” budding entrepreneurs will be able to submit business proposals to Balyolu for grants. “We want to support these women in building their own businesses. We will encourage them and offer ideas and guidance, of course, but the community will ultimately have to decide how the funds are invested,” Jaffee explained.

Matt Krause, an American who lived in İstanbul for years and stumbled upon Balyolu online, told Sunday’s Zaman it is Jaffee’s passion that got his attention. “What turns Balyolu from just another tour into a fascinating concept is how deeply and joyfully Cat immerses herself in the subject of bees and honey. I read her blog and was amazed to find her talking about bees as if they were people,” he said.

“I don’t care much about bees, but she does, and what better way to tour a place than to let someone who is proud to be madly in love with it show it to you through their eyes?” Krause posed.

Book an adventure, do social good

Because Balyolu is not only a tasty journey but also a force for social good, the start-up business venture needs support to get off the ground.

Balyolu can be found on Kickstarter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. Each initiative has only 30 days to reach its funding goal. The project will only be funded if at least $35,000 is pledged by Feb. 26. As of Friday afternoon, Balyolu had already met half of its goal.

Even if they do not reach their target by Feb. 26, Jaffee said the project will go ahead if 40 people (10 people per trip) register for the four pilot tours.

“After completing our first four trips, we will have directly affected 100 people in our local community, paying each one over $350 in supplies, training, and income,” Jaffee said.

Balyolu kicks off with four tours this summer:

Spring Blossoms: May 19 – May 26

Anatolia Steppes: June 9 – June 16

Summer Tundra: June 30 – July 7

Mountain Meadows: July 26 – August 2

Get the scoop on founder Jaffee, the Balyolu team’s recent achievements and the “five-sense experience” here: www.balyolu.com and www.inspiredbeeing.com

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