Meet Dr. Vera Sistenich, an Emergency Medicine physician from Sydney, Australia. Dr. Vera is the Project Leader for HandsUp Congo, an Australian nonprofit, “Building a Healthy Congo” Project. In collaboration with local partners and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) government they are committed to bring Emergency Medicine training and integration to the DRC healthcare system. This is her story on one way she supports their goals.
“I started in 2015 when I lived in a seaside suburb here in Sydney called Coogee. As a child, I grew up in Hong Kong (my Mum is Chinese) but our family spent our summer holidays in Germany (my Dad is from Munich). We had a very rural home in a Bavarian suburb next to a forest. Our neighbour, an old man, used to keep his hives in the forest which I used to pass walking our little sausage dog daily. I was always fascinated, and we could see the old man at night through the window processing wax and honey. I thought to myself as a girl I’d love to keep bees one day. When I moved to Sydney and bought my own home for the first time, I came across The Urban Beehive, a business and movement promoting responsible beekeeping in the urban environment. The owners Doug Purdie and Vicky Brown are Australian beekeeping royalty now! I did a course with them and then started my own hive in the outdoor area of my ground floor unit in Coogee.
The weather here is so good that my one hive was producing around 100kg of honey a year. There are only so many birthday and Christmas presents you can make with all this honey! This volume would give around 300 jars a year, so I tried my hand at a little social enterprise, creating a label called “Coogee Bees for Congo” and selling each jar for AUD $15 and putting all the profit towards our Congo EM Project. There is a famous building in Coogee right by the beach called The Coogee Pavilion. It has a blue and white dome, which is what inspired the blue and white bee of my label, set within the contour of the landmass of the DRCongo. I changed the sting of the bee into a little heart, a reminder to myself of our duty to translate compassion into practice towards those in need everywhere.
I now have 2 hives, producing about 200kg per year. I have raised over AUD $ 10,000 since the start of the project with the honey.
Beekeeping is very successful in the city. The Sydney Bee Club, of which I’m a committee member, has partnered with several universities here for research, providing dead bees and honey samples from our members from numerous suburbs. It turns out that the honey produced in cities is less contaminated with chemicals and pesticides than a lot of rural honeys and the flavours more complex due to the diversity plants and lack of monocultures in the urban setting. Heavy metals from the city environment are stored within the bodies of the bees themselves and secreted somewhat into the wax, but not into the honey. This came as a big and welcomed surprise to us all. Challenges, though, included minimising swarming in the urban environment so our hives don’t become a public nuisance, and adhering to rules and regulations regarding safety towards our neighbours. The practice is popular here and encouraged by our local counsellors.
I don’t do any formal marketing as such. I work at two hospitals here in Sydney and just by word of mouth, colleagues, family and friends buy out the honey every time. I post on Facebook when I have a new batch and also on the HandUp Congo Facebook page. I also make candles from the wax as gifts.
In addition to raising funds for the EM project, one year, we chanced upon the only beekeeper training collective in the whole of the Congo whilst traveling to one of our teaching sites by road. From that, a completely separate Be A Honey Project was born – we have raised funds to bring these experts to the remote village of Lotumbe, where Lucy of HandUp Congo grew up, to train them in sustainable beekeeping, in particular to empower the Pygmy population there.”