IVAN FREEMAN operates a 20 hectare rose farm at the foot of Mount Kenya right on the equator, where the soil is fertile and the sun shines all year round. His business, Uhuru Flowers, exports to around 49 countries including China, Nigeria and parts of Eastern Europe. Some of its buds reach the shop window within four days of being pruned.
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Fine-tuned business stalled when the pandemic broke out. The celebrations have been canceled, the florists closed, and the planes grounded. Uhuru cut labor hours in half and destroyed 1.2 million unsold stems, about a month’s harvest. The supply chains have since been slowly rebuilt, and the 350 employees are back to full-time employment. Now, like many farmers, Mr. Freeman is accelerating production and hoping to make up for last year’s losses with sales on February 14th. “Valentine’s Day is a big deal for most farms,” he says. “Everyone feels positive and ready to benefit from it.”
After the first disruption, the countries reopened their borders. Florists have gone online and Kenya’s flower industry has produced roses. According to a survey by the Central Bank of Kenya among producers in the Rift Valley, the sector employed more people in the past month than it did before the spread of covid-19. Production and exports were at 90% and 95% of their levels in February last year.
Farmers say demand has recovered surprisingly well. The global economy may have collapsed and consumers may be concerned, says Anna Barker of the Fairtrade Foundation, but “a bouquet of flowers on the table works wonders when you stand still.”
This is good news for Kenya’s economy. The flower industry usually contributes around 1% of GDP and is a source of foreign currency. It employs more than 500,000 people, 100,000 of whom work directly on farms. The flower farming debate once centered on poor conditions for workers who are on their feet all day exposed to all sorts of chemicals. The focus now is on keeping these workers, including many unskilled women, in jobs.
A big problem that hasn’t gone away is transportation. Fewer passenger flights than usual lead the crucial route from Africa to Europe. And cargo capacity has fallen as planes have been diverted to transport medical equipment. Richard Fox of Flamingo Horticulture, a large flower producer with farms in Timau, estimates that air freight costs rose from $ 1.90 to nearly $ 3 per kilo over the past year.
Such a disruption did much more damage to the smaller farms. Flamingo, which processes a mammoth trunk of 780 m each year, has a long-term agreement with a logistics service provider. The supply chain was hardly disrupted. However, smaller farms negotiate with freighters. The competition for slots on airplanes is particularly fierce ahead of the high season, which starts on Valentine’s Day and extends to Mother’s Day weeks later. “The big boys always win,” sighs Mr. Freeman.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print version under the heading “Flower Power”.