When he was a teenager, Faustin Munyakazi, 38, developed an interest in beekeeping and eventually ventured into the field in his early 20s.
As a toddler, Munyakazi, a resident of Kitabi Sector in Nyamagabe District used to follow his father who illegally kept his beehives in Nyungwe forest. And thus he felt he should do the same.
However, due to lack of skills and equipment, he could not rely entirely on beekeeping to survive. So he combined it with farming.
"I was initiated into beekeeping when I was still a young boy," Munyakazi says. "We used to keep beehives in Nyungwe forest, expecting to get higher yields."
"But since we were practicing it in the traditional way, our production was very low that sometimes some of the so-called beekeepers started hunting wild animals to feed their families."
But something else hindered his trade: as time elapsed, efforts were stepped up to stop encroachment activities in Nyungwe National Park and it became almost impossible to operate within the area.
It is until Munyakazi joined hands with other beekeepers that his life took an upward direction and his living conditions improved. Today, Munyakazi is one of the 22 members of Kitabi Beekeepers Association, better known by its French acronym COASEKI. The association, which has over 190 beehives, is practicing apiculture in the buffer zone around Nyungwe National Park.
"I now have the capacity to pay school fees for my children and pay their subscription for Mutuelle de Santé (Community health insurance)," Munyakazi proudly says.
"I have also rebuilt my house with bricks and bought a cow to boost my family's health and our income."
According to Munyakazi, their association is focused on the production of honey for commercial purposes which they hope would propel them to improved welfare. Last year the association produced over 800 kilogrammes of honey, Munyakazi says.
To ensure that they reap big from their efforts, members of COASEKI association joined hands with 12 other beekeepers associations operating around Nyungwe forest and, together they set up Ubwiza Bwa Nyungwe cooperative, their umbrella body. The cooperative is involved in farming, processing and packaging of honey. It boasts 1,370 members and has over 4000 beehives.
Beekeepers in the areas surrounding Nyungwe park have for long been blamed for starting fires which ravaged the forests in the past.
Sometimes the fires started accidentally after beekeepers and poachers left fire inside the park after conducting their 'illegal' activities.
According to Louis Rugerinyange, a Nyungwe Chief Park Warden, the park lost 12 per cent of its over 1000 square kilometres between 1997 and 2002 to wildfire.
The latest of the incidents occurred in 2009 when nearly six hectares of Nyungwe forest were razed by a fire which was allegedly started by the man who was harvesting honey.
"Some beekeepers were responsible for the fires but today that has changed. We have established structures to help track anyone who can try to keep beehives or harvest honey inside the park," Vincent Hakizimana, a member of Ubwiza bwa Nyungwe Coop, says.
"As a cooperative, we mobilise our members and other residents so as to bring them to contribute to protecting this forest [Nyungwe] which plays a big role in our activities."
Thanks to their pro-conservation approach, the cooperative attracted a number of sponsors, among them the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Partners in Conservation.
According to Hakizimana, as the cooperative continue to thrive, its members benefit too. It has played a key role in uplifting the lives of its members by working towards increasing their production and making efforts to get good prices, he says.
The coop's production grew from 5.4 tonnes of honey in 2011 to 6.4 tonnes last year, according to Hakizimana. This year, the target is to produce at least 7.5 tonnes, he adds.
And as the production increased, prices grew too.
Before they formed the umbrella group, beekeepers used to get between Rwf 800 and Rwf1,200 per one kilo of honey. But after it was established, the price climbed to Rwf 4,000 per a kilo of processed honey.
Apart from processing and selling honey under the brand name, Ubuzima Honey, the cooperative has also started to produce candles whose costs range between Rwf1,000 and Rwf10,000 a pack.
"People used to say that beekeeping cannot sustain one's life; it was considered as a waste of time. But we have proved them wrong," Hakizimana says.
"We have come together to give value to what we are doing and make sure everyone of us benefits."
Now, the beekeepers are moving towards involving the youth in the activity.
"Young people have shown little interest in practicing apiculture though it is lucrative. We have the challenge of mobilising them and bringing them on board if we want this profession to remain alive," Hakizimana says, disclosing that the majority of practitioners are old people, aged over 45.