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East Africa Faces Asian Tigers as AGOA Quotas Go

Published date:
Monday, 16 February 2004

Kenya's flower industry is widely seen as the fastest growing area in a stagnant economy. Bringing in Ksh20 billion ($256.4 million) annually in foreign exchange, the industry is a leading employer, with an estimated 500,000 people deriving their livelihood from it.

KenyaWith an annual production of 35,000 tonnes and control of 60 per cent of the $165 million African flower trade, Kenya is the world's leading producer of flowers, supplying about 25 per cent of the European Union's total requirements, followed by Columbia and Israel.

Kenya's success story has inspired the growth of the flower industry in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, as well as Zimbabwe and South Africa farther afield. But their achievements have been somewhat limited and industry experts say that they still have a long way to go before they can come anywhere near Kenya's standards.

While there are about 100 registered flower growers, 60 per cent of the industry is in the hands of 50 large horticultural farms, which are members of the Kenya Flower Council (KFC). These supply 90 per cent of the exports to Britain, the country's second biggest market. The Dutch Auctions take up 60 per cent of the total flowers exported from the country, while the rest go directly to supermarkets and other retail outlets in Europe. Roses constitute 70 per cent of total flower production, followed by carnations, which are the most popular in Britain except on Valentine's and Mother's Days.

Other countries that buy Kenya's flowers are Germany, Canada, Japan, Norway and South Africa (during winter). Although the US remains a huge potential market for Kenyan flowers under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the market is hampered by a lack of direct flights, a problem that also limits access to the highly lucrative Japanese market.

Selling to UK supermarkets has stabilised the industry by creating a constant demand and enabling farmers to enjoy steady sales with little fluctuation. Growers supplying to supermarkets have developed a factory-style business that develops wrapped bunches for respective supermarkets, among them Tesco and Marks & Spencer, where they send ready-to-go bouquets, labelled and date-coded. Among such growers are Finlay Flowers, Red Lands Roses and Homegrown.

At the Netherlands Auctions, which dominate the trade in cutflowers, Dutch wholesalers buy flowers for re-export to markets as far away as the United States and Japan.

In the past decade, the trade has undergone tremendous changes, with one of the former giants, Sulmac, quitting the business. Sulmac, originally owned by Brooke Bond, was sold to the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which also sold it after three years to the current owners, Homegrown. The traditional giants - Oserian Development Company, Sulmac, Finlay, and Homegrown - have, within the decade, seen their marketshare challenged by new players such as Sian Roses, Sher Agencies, the relatively new Rift Flowers and Shalimar Flowers. Another new entrant, Stoni Athi, is currently under receivership.

Stoni Athi is reputed to be the most expensive flower outfit in Africa, while Oserian is rated as the largest single specialist flower unit in the world. Other smaller but sophisticated farms that, though relatively young, have made a mark are Red Lands Roses and Suera Flowers. Red Lands was the first flower company to grow flowers using hydroponics - a rapidly-expanding technology that involves planting in soil-less media. Suera recently won the silver and bronze medals at the biennial International Hortifair 2003 in Holland, becoming the first African grower to win at the highly competitive fair.

Most of Kenya's flowers are grown around Lake Naivasha, which has recently attracted the attention of environmentalists who say the lake is threatened by the industry, which thrives on its waters. The lake is designated both as a Riparian as well as a Ramsar site, requiring protection and conservation. In total, flower growing covers 20 square kilometres of land around the lake, three-quarters of which is semi-arid. Some flower farms such as Red Lands Roses and Charm Flowers, located in Thika and Kitengela respectively, have been set up in areas not suitable for food growing and therefore do not compete for land with food crops.

The industry is capital-intensive, requiring a start-up capital of $50,000 per hectare, but managed properly, it is a high-yielding venture. Basic costs entail land preparation, setting up irrigation systems, greenhouses, refrigerated cooling and storage and staff welfare facilities.

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