Of Flowers in Kenya and Sustainable Agriculture

Flowers bunch from the Rift Valley [Roberto Schmidt:AFP:Getty Images]

Farming flowers constitutes a world of labor, expense and delicacy. From the moment of planting in seed bed to the rigorous irrigation routine, tendering after roses, carnations and chrysanthemums among other blooms is a hard but rewarding experience. Indeed, flowers are among the few non-native crops that Kenya exports, the others being tea and coffee and French beans. So, what makes them so attractive to the farmers despite the odds and how do the growers sustain their production?

The question is relevant as in April 2018, Finlays, a large-scale flower entity slated to close two of its flower plantations in Kericho. The reason that the firm gave was overboard labor expenses. It expects to phase out the running of its Tarakwet as well as Chemirei cultivated lands in a 24-month duration. This will affect some 1700 laborers and other workforce that has relied for generations on this British tea and flower growing company in the Rift Valley region.

The direct reasons of the phase out of such flower farms is the increment in labor expenditure which in turn is as a result of agitations by farmers’ unions. Recently, the firm reportedly hiked its pay to laborers in other related farms by 30% to stave off union demands. The recent move has come as the expenditure for labor has brought down export returns for the company.

Despite these challenges, the flower sub-sector is still one of the most rewarding for Kenya in terms of foreign exchange. In 2018, the country expects to bag $1 billion up from the $0.71 billion of 2016. This is a far cry from the $0.36 billion that the sector raked in at the end of 2010.

The first sustainable reason for the growth of the flower export sector is that secondary means such as foreign auctions particularly the Dutch one are now being supplemented by direct sales. European supermarkets are now directly ordering large shipments at premium prices. This has made the expense of farming flowers worth it due to the confirmed returns.

The productivity of flowers in Kenya and the handsome price per piece are other reasons that stem the challenges and keep the sector sustainable. A flower farm in the nondescript environs of Nairobi, in Kikuyu is a clear example of the trend to maximize on space to grow volumes and generate high prices per stem. The farm picks around seventy thousand blossoms daily bound for export. Each goes for a premium KSH 50 ($0.5).

There is also the fact that almost all flowers in a farm, especially in greenhouses go into export. For instance, the farm in question in Kikuyu directly exports 99.9 percent of its blooms because of the popular demand in the EU market. It is also remarkable that the farm resells only the second grade in city markets and local homes, which indicates that almost all exports are first grade.

Back in 2013, smallholder farmers owning less than an acre of cultivated land joined in earnest in flower agriculture. The main areas that attracted this trend ranged from Gatanga to Kikuyu and Nakuru to the Mount Kenya and Western regions. Most of the family growers from these areas time the seasons so that their blooms are ready at the end and early parts of the year. This keeps them as profitable as their large plantation counterparts who also avoid the July through august period. This is the summer months when flowers are at their lowest prices due to ample availability in the West.

One of the motivating factors for the adoption of summer flowers by family growers in Kenya is the fact that they join open-minded SACCOs. SME exporters contract the SACCO members to grow certain blooms for them. To insure as competitive quality as their large plantation peers, SME contractors supply certified seeds to the family growers. They also provide full-scale training. A story by the East African in 2013 during the start of such partnerships showed how one contractor combined the efforts of four thousand family growers in different regions of the country. The company based in Gatanga sold the cut flowers on the farmers’ behalf and remunerated them per stem.

Another commanding factor of sustainability in the Kenya flower business is the proper duration of harvesting. Most family growers have learnt the art of weekly harvests within a period of twenty four months. This is succeeded by up to half a year when the flower remains dormant. There is also the choice to make sure that the stems grow to the most fetching height of 70cm. These attract better rates than those of 35cm.

To maintain good press and meet with better acceptance internationally, large flower growers in Kenya have come up with sustainable measures, too. One of the largest growers in the Rift Valley, Oserian, has apparently gone geothermal for its greenhouse technology. The use of power in controlled environments is necessary for the supply of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and other botanical reactions.

Technology has also meant new sustainable measures in Kenya’s flower sector, principally through hydroponics. This engineering method relies on just a nutrient-rich water culture that operates under 70% less water than typical plants need and on a negligible plot of land. This has helped maintain arable land in the country without diminishing the output of flowers. As the aforementioned example of Kikuyu township illustrates, it is possible now to grow flowers even in urban environments without compromising on quality.

Concerning the production of flowers using green houses that are powered by geothermal, statistics show that the method has a lesser carbon footprint of 5.8 times than that of mainstream electric sources. This means that Kenya’s flowers grown under this method have more sustainable emission levels in comparison with their European-grown varieties.

An ultimate sustainable advantage of flowers from Kenya is that their main means of conveyance is by air: this means that they still arrive fresh and retain their color. Flowers undergo air transit under temperatures of between 0.5° Celsius and 1° Celsius. Instead of dipping the stems in water, the flowers enjoy relatively high humid conditions that prevent wilting. Unlike other fresh produce, the stems do not receive a spray of ethylene, which can cause harmful effects on the sensitive blooms.

Freshness upon arrival is also dependent on the kinds of flowers under export. The basic vase life of various blooms consists of the following statistics:

Rose: seven to ten days.
Carnation: fourteen to twenty-one days.
Lily: average fourteen days.
Chrysanthemums: twenty five to thirty days.
Dandelion: average fourteen days.
Orchid: fourteen to twenty one days.
Gladiola: average fourteen days.
Hyacinth: average three to seven days.
Hypericum: ten to twenty one days.
Hybrid lily: four to eleven days.
Tulip: three to seven days.
Hypericum: ten to twenty-one days.

The above vase lives of flowers can change due to the way the stems are cut. Trimming the leaflet just above where the stem will dip in the water can also prolong the freshness of the blossom by preventing wilting.

Therefore, the sustainability of flowers from Kenya lies in various factors that range from the embracing of the farming art by small-scale farmers, quick freight mode by air and the use of sustainable growing technology. This is despite the expense that goes into growing, conserving and paying for their labor. Thus, even when flowers do not have a short shelf life, they can be the most lucrative sources of capital for local farmers.