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Africa Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Kenya's flower power
Workers in Kenya's thriving flower growing industry
By Rosie Goldsmith

If you're not a nature lover before you come to Lake Naivasha, you certainly will be after your stay. The beauty is staggering. There's the lake itself, a smooth, gleaming expanse of water - 150 square kilometres of it.

Kenya needs the income and the jobs but at what cost?

There are the 15,000 hippos in the lake which pop out of the water with alarming frequency. And within only two minutes I spotted a Goliath Heron, two Fish Eagles and a Pied Kingfisher out of the 350 recorded bird species in the area.

On shore, not far away, I also saw Colobus monkeys and water buck. Joy Adamson, of "Born Free" fame, used to live on this shore. Elsa the Lion was one of my favourite childhood animals.

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No wonder Lake Naivasha is an environmental treasure and designated wetlands of international repute. It is situated at the bottom end of the famous Rift Valley in Kenya and is special not only because of its beauty but also because the lake water is fresh and its surrounding soil very fertile.

A view of Lake Naivasha
No wonder, too, that it has become the centre of Kenya's flower growing industry. There has been a drought in Kenya for three years and water is a precious commodity but the lake has plenty. So the growers have located most of the farms on its shores and irrigate them from the lake. And that's where the trouble begins.

Environmentalist Margaret Otieno believes Lake Naivasha could disappear from overuse
I was taken out on the lake by Margaret Otieno, an environmentalist, who works at the Elsamere Conservation Centre which is based in the grounds and house of Joy Adamson's old home. According to Mrs Otieno, there is a serious over-exploitation of the lake's water and the levels have gone down.

Apparently the lake could disappear if this continues. Also she says, "We are concerned about the fertilizers and pesticides being used by the flower growers they could be using banned substances." She continues, "it is very difficult for us to penetrate the flower farms. They think we are the police for the environment. They think we are enemies."

And here's the rub: the flower industry is very profitable. In export and employment terms, it is catching up with Kenya's main foreign earners, tea and coffee. In fact, most of the roses and carnations grown on the shores of the lake end up in supermarkets in the UK.

So the reason I came to Kenya was to investigate the environmental and social cost of this phenomenally successful industry. Kenya needs the income and the jobs but at what cost?

Lord Enniskillen admits some growers are causing problems for the environment
Lord Andrew Enniskillen is a Kenyan landowner - on the banks of Lake Naivasha. He is also chairman of the influential Lake Naivasha Riparian Association. It is a group of concerned businessmen like him, local hoteliers and even some flower growers, who were so worried about the fragile ecology and water situation of the lake that they lobbied the Kenyan government to be allowed to manage the lake.

Lord Enniskillen believes there is a growing awareness of environmental problems in Kenya, even though there is little money for its protection.

"There is no doubt," he says, "that every flower farm round the lake has the potential to do huge, irreversible damage, unless we take precautions.We have one or two growers who are a problem and have been a problem for a long time and we're trying to sort them out. "

According to the KFC code of practice, workers should wear protective clothing
The umbrella organisation of flower growers, the Kenya Flower Council (KFC), has drawn up a strict code of practice for its members which stipulates, among other things, protective clothing for workers, safe pesticides and careful use of water.

Nonetheless the KFC were reluctant to talk to me. Local journalists and environmentalists confirmed that there are indeed a handful of growers who do not adhere to the Kenya Flower Council 's Code of Practice. The transgressors, I am told, extract too much water from the lake, spray their flowers with banned chemicals and pollute the lake.

We work as slaves

Flower farm worker
And according to a group of farm workers I managed to gather together in their lunch break, they are worked too hard for too little money - about 1 Sterling a day. "We work as slaves," said one woman.

They tell me of colleagues who are exposed to the chemicals sprayed in the greenhouses and who complain of chest pains. But if the workers protest, they say, "the next day there will be 100 people at the farm gates waiting to take our one job."

Flower grower Sarah Higgins (on left) with Crossing Continents presenter Rosie Goldsmith
Sarah Higgins is a flower grower and a member of the Kenya Flower Council and the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association. Her farm was described to me as "exemplary" and she was happy to talk with me.

"There are those who aren't fully educated yet - there's always a bad penny - but we are working very hard to bring all flower farmers up to the same standards...If we pollute the lake," she continues, "we've killed the industry." Sarah Higgins uses only acceptable chemicals and an environmentally-friendly, computerized drip-irrigation system for her farm; I saw her workers wearing protective clothing.

Finally, in the capital Nairobi, one of the Executive Directors of the Kenya Flower Council agreed to see me - Mike Morland. Their nervousness about seeing foreign journalists, especially from a country which represents huge export earnings for them, is due to our perceived power to destroy their industry.

This is an industry which has put Kenya on the map

Mike Morland
Executive Director of the Kenya Flower Council
But with such an impressive Code of Practice, why was the Flower Council so worried? The problem, as I see it, is that those few "bad pennies" give the industry a bad name and are difficult to supervise, especially if they do not belong to the KFC.

Mr Morland was obviously exasperated by them: "If we find non-compliances (among our members), a compliance request is put in front of them and we go back to check on it. If someone persistently refuses, we would inform all the relevant people we think it is necessary to inform.

"This is an industry which has put Kenya on the map; it's extremely important to Kenya economically and it's doing its best to comply with international standards and will continue to do so."

Mike Morland says the KFC is trying to enforce compliance among flower growers with their code of practice
I came away with a picture of an industry which has grown so quickly that it has almost not been able to keep pace with the speed of its own progress. But there are impressive numbers of people - environmentalists, individual growers, the Kenya Flower Council - now trying to turn it into a responsible and sustainable industry for the long term.

Mike Morland assured me that I could buy my flowers in my supermarket back home with a clear conscience.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: why the taps are running dry and lights going out in the capital city and the success of another Kenyan rose - this time on the golf course.

Chris Williams of AMREF
describe the terrible case of the girl who lived in a latrine in Nairobi's slums
Lord Enniskillen Lake Naivasha Riparian Assoc
shares his concerns about the Kenyan flower growing industry
Birds of Lake Naivasha:
their dawn chorus
fish eagles
their unusual cries
See also:

02 Apr 01 | Africa
30 Mar 01 | Africa
30 Mar 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
06 Feb 01 | Country profiles
06 Mar 01 | Africa
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