Katrina Klett moved to China nearly a decade ago to study language, but ended up finding her true calling there as a beekeeper. She’s now turning that vision into a business as a social entrepreneur.
Klett is the CEO of Elevated Honey Co, a small honey company in southwest China that is passionate about helping farmers connect to better markets through supply chains.
The company works with a rare native Asian honeybee species that produces a smaller amount of honey than bees in the U.S. As such, the honey is rare and priced about eight times higher than honey that comes from bees in other parts of the world.
However, the honeybee farmers in China have a hard time cashing in on that profit because they do not have easy access to buyers. Farmers often live in remote mountain areas, where it’s difficult to connect with buyers, Klett said.Happy Farmers, Better Honey
According to Klett, Elevated Honey Co has three main goals:
To achieve these goals, the company works with farmers to train them and provide equipment and eventually bring them in line with the its philosophy. Beekeepers can either stick to their traditional methods or transition to more modern processes in line with what’s done in the U.S.
“What we find is that our young, innovative guys want to learn new management techniques, but our older gentlemen want to stick with log hives,” Klett says. “We want both to be possible.”
While Elevated Honey Co. provides beekeeping best practices, Klett is quick to point out that she does not offer training on how to become an entrepreneur. While she considers herself a social entrepreneur, she does not feel she’s an expert in helping others do the same.
Regardless of which beekeeping method a farmer uses, Elevated Honey Co. works to make sure they receive a fair price for the final product. Middlemen take advantage of inexperienced farmers by offering low prices and then cashing in by selling it at a much higher price.
Elevated Honey Co. buys honey at higher prices but requires higher standards as a result. The financial motivation is often enough to bring in line those who might have cut corners or skimped on quality when selling to other buyers.
“That’s how we bring a lot of these guys into the fold and get them to come along with us on some of our quality control issues,” Klett said.
Honey is sold entirely online, mostly through WeChat, a Chinese social media site. The site also serves as a marketing platform for the company.Moving to China
Working in China allows Klatt to combine her passion for beekeeping with her passion for language. Her parents are migratory beekeepers who produce honey in North Dakota and breed queen bees in Texas.
As she learned more about beekeeping, Klett discovered that China has one of the most diverse bee populations in the world and offers opportunities that are not available in the U.S.
“It’s just a really fascinating place to be involved in bees and beekeeping. I wanted to come and understand that,” Klett said.
Klett moved to China in 2008 to study language at Beijing Foreign Studies University. While there, she began interning in a honeybee research lab and learned the ins and outs of Chinese beekeeping.
She also learned about a research project in need of a beekeeping technician. A residential area was converted to a national park in the 1980s, which was making it difficult for residents there to prosper economically.
The park’s leaders thought beekeeping might be a way to boost the area’s economy without damaging the environment. They were looking for someone to help get a beekeeping program off the ground, a role Klett was happy to fulfill.
“Beekeeping doesn’t extract anything from the environment. In fact, having bees in a place improves the environment through pollination service,” Klett said.
Klett said she was blown away by the area’s beauty and knew that it would be perfect for honey production. In addition, the area had a long tradition of beekeeping and a population who was ready and willing to embrace new ideas.
“Every single person’s last name was honeybee in this village. It was a really fateful thing and I remember thinking ‘just go for it’,” Klett said.
Klett did not speak the region’s dialect when she first moved to the area and described the “crude” system of hand gestures and other nonverbal communication she used to fill the gap as she learned the language. Luckily, she said, beekeeping is very hands-on and has motions that are universally understood.Technology and Business: Lessons Learned
Klett is working on an extractor for log beehives that would bring technology a traditional method of beekeeping. This would allow older generations to continue the practices they know while making extraction easier.
The extractor is based on a model used in the U.S. Klett developed it in collaboration with an engineer who worked with her pro bono. It’s made of bicycle parts and is very simple for people in the villages to make and install on the sides of mountains where the honey is collected.
“We shouldn’t focus on trying to move everyone away from this, we should create technology that works with them,” Klett said.
On the business side of things, Klett drew on her family’s experience from running a small business. She was familiar with concepts like risk but said she is still learning about marketing and building a brand.
One lesson she quickly learned was that, as a small business owner, it’s not wise to try and do everything yourself. She recalled buying design software and staying up all night before her first honey promotion show trying to make labels, only to end up with a product that looked like it was produced by an amateur.
“Slowly I figured out that if you hire a professional, they can do it in a couple of hours and the labels look great,” Klett said.Beyond Honey
Klett’s goal is to turn Elevated Honey Co into a franchise model that will connect sparsely populated mountain communities across China while giving each office the freedom to adapt based on that area’s ecological and cultural environment.
She also hopes to expand into Laos and Vietnam — all while maintaining high standards of quality that will unite beekeepers across Asia.
Outside of earning revenue through honey sales, Elevated Honey Co is encouraging people around the world to contribute toward a healthy habitat for bees by planting things that encourage pollination in their area.
A list of plants is available from Xerces, along with recommendations on how to plant based on where you live. Klett said everyone can join this effort regardless of where they live.
“You can do this if you live in a high rise, if you’re in a small town, or if you’re in the countryside. The Xerces Society will help you figure out how to do this planting.”Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Katrina Klett
“Want to give them a solid wage where they can do something that’s positive for the environment, not harmful.” @elevatedhoneyco
“There’s a problem of fake honey in China and throughout the world. We’re trying to address that in our supply chain.” @elevatedhoneyco
“I’m a social entrepreneur and I have a company, but I don’t consider myself an expert in running a company.” @elevatedhoneyco
“We don’t have any stories. Our sales are all done throughout China online.” @elevatedhoneyco
“I don’t know that it’s a good idea to switch everyone over to outside technology.” @elevatedhoneyco
You’re far better off partnering with like-minded experts than trying to do everything yourself in a small business.” @elevatedhoneycoSocial Entrepreneurship Resources
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