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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 17:35 GMT
Kenya's flower farms flourish
Carnation field by lake
UK supermarkets are big buyers of Kenyan flowers
By BBC News Online's Mary Hennock

Flower growing has overtaken coffee and tourism as a source of foreign exchange for Kenya and ranks second only to tea, according to the Kenya Flower Council (KFC).

And Kenyan growers have developed a factory-style business that can deliver wrapped bunches to UK supermarkets, where staff need to do nothing more than stand them in water.

"Part of our product offer from Kenya includes a bouquet ready to go, labelled, date-coded," says Martin Hudson, managing director of importer Flamingo UK which supplies British supermarkets and Marks & Spencer.

Last year, Kenyan sales of cut flowers abroad were worth $110m (77m), or 8% of export earnings, according to the KFC.

Dutch connection

Kenya has become the European Union's biggest source of flower imports and overtaken Israel as market leader.

Oserian's grading hall
Oserian staff grade flowers for Tesco

It has a 25% market share, beating Colombia and Israel which each have about 16%.

Two thirds of these blooms go to the Netherlands, which dominates the trade in cut flowers worldwide through its auction halls where Dutch wholesalers buy flowers for re-export to markets as far away as the United States and Japan.

But direct exports to the UK also account for a quarter of Kenya's sales to the EU, making it the country's second market and one that many growers focus on.

Valentine's Day is a big date for Kenyan growers, thanks to the country's perfect match of high altitudes and equatorial sunshine.

Logistics

Roses make up 74% of Kenya's flower exports, followed by carnations which are the most popular flower in Britain at less romantic times because they last longest.

Kenyan worker bunching roses
Preparing roses for a long flight

Flamingo UK, which has annual turnover of 30m on flowers, expects to sell up to 2 million roses, mostly red, in Britain on Valentine's Day, Mr Hudson told BBC News Online.

Getting so many blooms to market in just the right state at the right time involves major preparation for growers, who must try to manipulate flowering times by debudding their bushes.

Flowers are then cut and wrapped and exported in cooled containers, often on chartered aircraft, to reach consumers within 48 hours, KFC chairman Rod Evans said.

Tesco, Sainsbury

The rise of supermarket flower-selling has stabilised the industry by creating constant demand and enabling farmers to get enough steady sales to guarantee quality, Mr Evans told BBC News Online.

"Many of the sales don't fluctuate quite so much as they did in the old days," he said.

"Investment in greenhouses and covering the crop means the customer knows he's got the supply there and he'll buy."

The industry is capital intensive, needing investment of about $50,000 per hectare, but it's high-yielding: flower farms cover a mere 20 square kilometres of Kenya's total land area - 0.00003%.

Horticulture, which includes vegetables, employs about 50,000 workers directly and supports half a million people, Mr Evans said.

Low wages?

Critics of the industry accuse flower farmers of exploiting cheap labour, harming the environment and workers' health with toxins.

Balloons and orchids
Valentine's Day is peak time for roses

The Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a non-governmental organisation, held a conference to highlight these issues ahead of Valentine's Day.

It says some workers get as little as 2,000 shillings ($25) a month. Gross domestic product per head is $391 in Kenya.

The KFC counters that it has drawn up a code of practice and monitors its members, who represent 65% of exporters though a lower percentage of growers, twice a year.

Wages paid by KFC members average about $3 a day, or just over $50 a month, said Mr Evans. "Our competition in Zimbabwe are paying half a dollar a day."

Workers also receive transport and medical care, he points out.

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 ON THIS STORY
Paul Harris, Sainsbury's
"Environment and socially responsible trading issues are very important for us."
Rod Evans, Kenya Flower Council
"The entry levels are so high... it does limit the opportunity for a smallholder."
See also:

14 Feb 02 | Business
Love in a cold climate
03 Jan 02 | Business
Farmers sow seeds of enterprise
14 Feb 02 | UK
'My blind date for charity'
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