Flower Power

In Kenya’s Rift Valley, a global business is blooming.

NAIVASHA, Kenya—Jack Kneppers, one of two Dutch brothers who run Kenya’s Maridadi Flowers, leans in to me and whispers that even after the Icelandic ash fiasco, his farm still made a profit. He then winks and bursts into laughter. Kneppers’ flower farm may have been the only beneficiary of the eruption of a volcano beneath Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull glacier this April. A travel embargo on flights bound for or leaving Europe left travelers stranded, European small businesses couldn’t import more of their products, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal ended up spending more time than he expected with a Rolling Stone reporter. Kenya’s dozens of flower farms also suffered. Kenya supplies more than a third of Europe’s cut flowers—tropical blooms and traditional roses, carnations, tulips, and more—and it was vulnerable to the whims of a volcano located thousands of miles away.

At the height of the ash crisis, Kenya’s horticulture industry, which also exports vegetables to Europe, was losing up to $3 million a day. Tons of radiantly colored flowers were destroyed or given away, and 5,000 workers were ordered to stay home. The government was beginning to worry about the industry that is its largest foreign currency earner, pulling in $924 million in 2009.

“There is not a real flower-buying culture here yet,” Kneppers tells me as we tramp through his expansive fields, dodging men in blue jumpsuits, carefully tending baby seedlings, and tractors pushing crates of roses. Consequently, most of the flowers grown in Kenya go to supermarkets abroad.

So how did Kneppers make a profit from the ash? He explains that because Maridadi makes shipments every day of the year—6 to 6½ tons or 160,000 to 175,000 stems—cargo carriers gave them preference. After three days of being grounded, they shipped Maridadi’s flowers, and because Kneppers’ European clients were eagerly awaiting the flowers, he was able to raise the price by 25 percent.

Decked out in a yellow-plaid shirt and a gold chain, Kneppers reminds me of a harmless rogue who has been forced into a conventional office job, even if it is at a flower farm in East Africa.

Kenya appears to be the ideal place to grow flowers. In the high altitude of the lush Great Rift Valley, more than 8,000 feet above sea level, growers can experiment with new breeds and produce high-quality varieties. And because they are so close to the equator, they can depend on a steady 12 hours of sunshine throughout the year.

Still, all is not ideal. Most of the flower farms depend on the rippling purple waters of Lake Naivasha for irrigation. Environmentalists say the flower farms take the clean water and then dump pesticide-infected waste back into the lake. It has become so polluted that fishing has been banned.

But the state of Lake Naivasha isn’t what Jane Ngige, head of the Kenya Flower Council, has in mind when she lists the problems flower growers have faced over the last two years.

“We’re not talking about recovering from one incident; we’re talking about a series of calamities: the 2008 election violence, the global financial crisis, climate change—we had an unusually cold winter and the worst drought ever last year—and then the Icelandic ash,” Ngige complains.

She has a point. Just as Kenyan flower farmers began to establish their products, the country hit a rocky patch that still hasn’t ended, from the violent aftermath of the 2007 presidential elections to the occasionally violent recent battle over a proposed new constitution. But a union of 1,500 small-scale growers is beginning to export its line of summer flowers into the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ngige likes to tell the story of Wilfred Kimani, a Kenyan who started out as a neighborhood flower vendor and now organizes the 1,500 farmers and exports their flowers. The Kenyan small holders, who each own no more than a quarter-acre of land, are also selling some of their flowers to stores and street hawkers in Nairobi, slowly promoting an appreciation of cut flowers in the local market.

Flowers are big business here. In Naivasha, 10 percent of area residents are directly involved with the industry, while thousands more are indirectly employed in fields like packaging. Some related skills, like growing tomatoes and other vegetables in greenhouses, have been passed on to local people.

The goal is to turn Kenya into a global powerhouse. “We are branding ourselves as a flower-growing country,” Ngige declares.

And as for actually working at one of these flower factories? Female workers have complained of sexual harassment at the farms; employers counter that their salaries are better than most jobs in town. Employees generally agree, but in an industry populated mostly by foreign-born owners and local-born employees, the power dynamic can often be imbalanced. Some workers say they are treated as disposable in an economy where others line up to take their place.

“The work is tiring, but the income’s not so bad,” says Jacqueline Wangari, a young woman who has worked here for two years, as she pauses from sorting a large batch of damp pink and orange roses at Maridadi. Around her, men and women stand at long wooden tables, piles of multicolored flowers before them. Rays of sunlight peek through a slanted roof into the room that is already lit up by artificial overhead lights.

Stacks of crates jammed with flowers tower over our heads. In addition to its abundance of flowers, Kenya is also a major tea grower. Kenya has cornered the specialty market in black tea and is making headway with its richly flavored green and white teas. Exports of tea to Europe, North America, and the Middle East increased in January by 12 percent. Despite fluctuating prices, tea remains one of the top foreign exchange earners.

The often-organic and intensely aromatic tea is experiencing a surge in demand. And the flowers grown in one of the most exotic places imaginable are only gaining fans, including the legions of expatriates residing in Kenya. Complaints about carbon miles from the long flights from Africa notwithstanding, flowers and tea pull in nearly half of Kenya’s revenue, inspiring new generations of growers. Kimani, the Kenyan flower entrepreneur, and his grass-roots farmers union have already had success in Britain.

Their next stop? Wal-Mart.

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