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The Copenhagen City Honey Cooperative

Not only does the Copenhagen City Honey Cooperative take the triple bottom line into account as an organization of people, it extends this concern to bees--a true cross-species cooperative. 

The unjust kingdom

It was a sleety winter evening in Copenhagen, just after the last international guests had left the 2009 climate conference. I took a different route home, skirting a patch of rough land on the edge of the city. Seeing the beehives carefully laid out among the old bricks and bare bushes got me curious. I called the number on the card that was attached to the fence. I met the beekeeper, Roberto, an émigré Argentinean in the Scandinavian north, and began to learn more. Humankinds best friend among the insects – the bee – is in decline across Europe. This is because of new agricultural methods, exotic bee diseases and climate change. In fact, bees can no longer survive without beekeepers. But traditional beekeepers are dying out. They are getting older, keeping fewer bees – and imported honey is putting increasing pressure on locally produced honey. Four things, I learned, were needed; More bees kept in cities, a new generation of beekeepers, an easier way for more of us to become beekeepers, and a way to get consumers interested in traditional, high quality Danish honey. Honey that is quite literally Denmark’s thriving nature in a jar. Moreover, beekeeping demands no formal qualifications, and is perfect to create working opportunities for immigrants to Denmark who have struggled to access the mainstream labour market.

The innovation journey

I knew there was a story and an opportunity in the problem. The challenge was to get the right people to meet. I began to spend winter evenings meeting beekeepers and biologists, and learning about bees. I brought together a group of development workers from housing associations and employment projects. I met leaders from businesses and from the municipality. One group knew about bees. Another knew about social problems and the local labour market. The third understood business and could help us access experts and resources. We all began to see the benefits of working together.

In the spring, we hit on a structure. We would make a new urban honey cooperative, owned and run by beekeepers themselves. We would start five new bee farms, each one training 12 new beekeepers and bringing 15 new bee colonies to the city. Three million new bees and 60 new beekeepers every year. We would make a honey factory, that would provide protected jobs in honey treatment. We would make a trading project, to market and sell urban honey products to Copenhageners. The project brings bees back to the city, provides concrete jobs in a reinvigorated traditional industry, and involves all Copenhageners in creating a city that literally buzzes with life.

The battle

But first we needed help. We needed the old beekeepers involved. We ran into a legal minefield in balancing the projects social objectives with the need to be financially sustainable and the opportunity to sell honey and honey products. How could unemployed people ‘work’ without losing their benefits? The financial crisis meant business were cutting staff and funding for CSR projects.

The way back home

The strength of the idea came through. Beekeepers began to get interested, and the project was endorsed by the local and national beekeeper associations. A legal expert got involved, offering his support for free. Our model became a template for other Danish social enterprises. Some key businesses became interested in giving over their roof spaces and grounds for beekeeping.

Finally, in august, the project was formally launched. 30 beekeepers, development workers and beekeepers came together to join the association. Five social projects – among the best known nationally – signed up for the pilot. Funding applications and business plans have been written and approved. From a chance encounter on a winter’s night, the Copenhagen City Honey Cooperative has begun to grow, and captured the imagination of the city. The future looks, and tastes, sweet.