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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 February 2008, 10:03 GMT
Not all roses for Kenya this year
A flower worker in Naivasha, Kenya

By Noel Mwakugu
BBC News, Nairobi

Flower farm workers in the lakeside town of Naivasha, in Kenya, which supplies a third of roses on sale in Europe, are observing an unhappy Valentine's Day.

Usually at this time of year they would be making extra income from increased shifts as flower farms try to beat deadlines and meet the affectionate needs of millions of people across the globe.

Some of my colleagues have already left... now the work load for those of us still here is heavy
Flower worker Victor Ouko

Instead, many are counting their losses as they queue for their next meal inside camps for those displaced by post-election violence.

Vicious attacks at the height of the unrest in the area saw dozens hacked to death because of their political beliefs or ethnic group.

Those who survived the violence that saw workers from the Luo, Kalenjin and Luyha communities driven away by armed Kikuyu youths now dread a place they once called home.

Many have been boarding trucks and heading back to their ancestral home hoping to restart their lives.

The Kenya Plantation Workers Union says some 3,000 workers have failed to return to their jobs because of safety fears.

During times of peak production, Kenya's flower industry employs some 30,000 people, although many of these are casual workers.

A flower worker in Naivasha, Kenya
Farms are struggling to replace and train new workers

"Some of my colleagues have already left for Western Province and now the work load for those of us still here is heavy," Victor Ouko, a Luo, told the BBC News website from Naivasha.

Mr Ouko is lucky to be alive as he has been living in staff quarters provided by his employer.

He says only those given such facilities still remain in Naivasha but many have sent their families away.

"At a time like this my wife would usually get a casual job at the company but this time we could not risk it," he said.

Perishable

This trend has affected the operations of some 50 flower plantations around Naivasha, the centre of Kenya's flower industry - the country's third largest export earner.

Another wave of violence will surely bring the flower industry in Kenya to its knees
Erastus Mureithi
Kenya Flower Council's former chairman

Although the Kenya Flower Council is yet to quantify the effects of the violence on the farms, its members concede the effects will be far-reaching.

The council's incoming chairman, Kabuga Muito, says many farms have witnessed reduced productivity this year.

Mr Muito said they are now struggling to replace and train new workers which in the long run will affect their finances.

He said that at the height of the chaos, the roads were blocked and producers had to incur unexpected transport costs by chartering flights to ensure flowers reached the destinations on time.

Alice Wangui, a rose trader in Nairobi, Kenya
Florist Alice Wangui fears Valentine's Day sales will be low

Because of the perishable nature of the flowers, the market demands that the products are delivered within 48 hours.

Players in the sector are now worried that this trend may reduce the confidence of Kenya's major markets.

"Another wave of violence will surely bring the flower industry in Kenya to its knees," Erastus Mureithi, the former Flower Council chairman warns.

Knock-on costs

Meanwhile, in the capital, Nairobi, lovers wanting to mark Valentine's Day will have to dig deeper into their pockets.

I think my customers will understand why the prices have been hiked
Florist Esther Wanjema

Alice Wangui, who has been a florist in the city for nearly a decade, says prospects for high sales are low.

"The supply this time has been low because of transport problems and the cost of roses has equally gone high," Ms Wangui says.

She had ordered more than 2,000 stems of red roses but she has been forced to reduce the order.

Ms Wangui explains that on a normal day a single stem costs about 50 US cents, but they have now increased it to nearly $1.

But another florist Esther Wanjema is more upbeat.

"It is nowadays trendy to share flowers in Kenya and I think my customers will understand why the prices have been hiked," she says.

So although the cost of rose production threatens to dampen Kenya's Valentine's spirit, many hope the day will be a vivid reminder of the need to build bridges and reconcile those sharply divided on ethnic grounds.



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