Roses for 'the one and only' this Valentine's Day impact the lives of thousands in east Africa

Some roses

Orchidya London is charging £5,000 for the 'Mon Amour' bouquet, made up of 999 Naomi roses.

Orchidya London
Thousands of tonnes of red roses are now being sold ahead of Valentine's Day. CURTIS ABRAHAM investigates the importance of flower exports to east African economies - and examines the impact on the environment on both a regional and a global level

One of the most troubling aspects of flower farming is the environmental destruction and damage that it can and has caused to east Africa’s wetlands.

A fragrant bouquet of a dozen roses or a simple single bloom is a must for many lovers on Valentine’s Day. But British and American consumers remain largely unaware of the fact the overwhelming majority of their cut flowers are grown in and exported from East Africa.

What to buy for Valentine's Day if you want to avoid buying flowers.

Flower farm owners mostly agree that being based in tropical Africa has given them a competitive edge over rival European flower farms - due to good year-round weather conditions and a stable climate, which affects the quality and quantity of flowers produced.

In Uganda, for example, the flower exporting industry owes its existence to mainly the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Ugandan initiatives such as the Uganda Flower Exporter’s Association (UFEA), a non-profit organisation.

The ‘sweetheart’ variety

In 1995, UFEA started an association for flower exporters in the country, which today is an umbrella body for 15 companies. Its lobbying power is almost single-handedly responsible for the blossoming of the country’s flower sector.

An estimated seventy percent of flowers grown in Uganda are roses. These include the popular large-headed types -such as the tea variety - and also the small-headed varieties otherwise known as the ‘sweetheart’. The large-headed varieties tend to command a higher price than the small ones.

However, Uganda still generally lacks the suitable conditions to produce the large-headed varieties. The majority of roses cultivated are therefore high-yielding, small-headed ‘sweetheart’ variety. This means the companies can only enter the market at the lower end.

Chrysanthemum cuttings, with their dazzling and complicated arrangement of branches, are the second most exported flower from Uganda. It is estimated that they make up twenty-five percent of production.

Most of the country’s flowers are exported to EU countries, and most of them are sold to the Netherlands. In fact, Uganda shares this distinction with only a handful of other African countries including Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Zambia and, increasingly, Rwanda.

Study horticulture

Juliet Musoke, the executive director of UFEA, confirms that 10,000 tons of flowers are exported annually and today the industry directly employs more than 8,500 people - and 80 percent of them are women. A further 11,500 people are employed indirectly.

Uganda's flower growers are certified by the Milieu Project Sierteelt (MPS), a floriculture environmental project founded by the Dutch floriculture sector.

Accreditation to MPS has also enabled local flowers to be EUREP-GAP certified. EUREP-GAP certified importers can freely supply European supermarkets. Several years back, UFEA members unanimously agreed to go for the MPS programme in order to meet the high environmental standards required by the EU.

One of the most troubling aspects of flower farming is the environmental destruction and damage that it can and has caused to east Africa’s wetlands.

The growth of the floriculture sector in Uganda is bringing about small social transformations, such as the construction of local health centres.

Joseph Barondemu, the human resources manager at Wagagai Limited, one of the world's largest flower propagation companies, says students now want to study horticulture as a career choice.

Discovery of moths

Uganda’s floriculture industry was severely affected by the global financial crisis that rocked world markets in 2008.

Luxury items, including flowers, took a hit as European consumers concentrated on the basics of life. The crash was so great that it led to the forced closure of several farms in Uganda. Financial shortcoming and bad weather are other factors that has led to farm closures.

The Ugandan flower sector then experienced a drastic drop in sales due to increasing competition and an export ban by the European Union.

The country exported 7,364 tones of flowers and made $46 million in 2013. By the following year this was down to 6,810 tones and $38.7 million in export revenue. Earnings has fallen by 18.8 percent. The amount of flowers exported had gone down 8.1 percent, UFEA statistics show.

Some European Union markets rejected Ugandan roses two years ago following the discovery of moths in the flowers.

Considerable advantage

In 2014, the EU issued a notice following an increase in the number of interceptions of Ugandan horticultural exports. Roses were among the commodities on the list of rejected exports.

According to the EU, exporters from Uganda also failed to comply with the phytosanitary certification requirements. However, east Africa’s floriculture market is on the rebound.

Kenya - Uganda’s easterly neighbour - is now the third largest exporter of cut flowers in the world and is the undisputed floriculture champion in the region. Its flower industry accounts for an estimated 35 percent of all sales in the European Union.

Flower exports have become Kenya’s third major foreign exchange earner - after tea and tourism - bringing more than $100m into the Kenyan economy each year.

Kenya has a considerable advantage in the floriculture sector over it’s landlocked neighbours in that it has excellent transport links to Europe, and from there, the rest of the world through Nairobi airport.

Floriculture industry

Indeed, one terminal is dedicated specially to the transport of flowers and vegetables. Therefore, perishable floral cargo can go from grower to consumer in record time.

The country's floriculture success is attributed to its sunny climate, which enables high-quality blossoms to be grown year-round without the need for expensive-to-run greenhouses.

In fact, Kenya’s roses, carnations and summer flowers - which are also popular in the US and Russia - are famed for being long-lasting. Such is the fine quality of Kenya’s flowers that they are sold even in competing countries such as Uganda.

Sanyu Christine, from Fresh Flower Point in the posh Kampala suburb of Muyenga argues: “Kenyan flowers have a longer life span, bigger size, and more variety than the local flowers.”

The rise of Ethiopia’s relatively young floriculture industry is now providing stiff competition to other flower-producing countries in the region.

Growing and export

In fact, Ethiopia is positioned as the second-largest flower exporter in Africa after Kenya, with over 100 grower companies on 1,700 hectares. Land under commercial floriculture in Kenya is 2,500 hectares, while in Uganda it is only 250 hectares.

As of 2016, Ethiopia was expected to export 400,000 tons annually and ranks as the continent’s second biggest producer of roses after Kenya. According to data from the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association (EHPEA), in 2016 the country expected $550 million from exports.

The industry there has been spurned on by a variety of factors - including generous foreign investments, government support and the formation of the Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association.

In addition, Ethiopian flower farmers also have access to bank loans and free government land as well as a 100 per cent exemption from customs duties.

But perhaps no other country in the East and central Africa’s Great Lakes region is better placed for flower growing and export than Rwanda.

Favourable climate

Not only does it have an agreeable climate suitable for flower production, but there is plenty of demand for flower exports. In addition, labour costs are low and the country has the potential produce other plants including ficus, palm trees, alstromeria and senseveria.

Currently, Rwanda produces mostly varieties of roses for the export market: these include orchids, carnations, asters, chyrsanthemums, marigolds and dahlia’s.

These flowers are grown mainly in the Rwandan districts of Kigali, Butare, Gisenyi and Rulindo. And although the industry is still relatively young, as compared to Kenya, the sector brings in revenue in excess of 9.5million euro. The flowers are mainly exported to Holland and Belgium.

The flowers are grown under greenhouse production and the acreage is still small. There are plans to double Rose production to include summer flowers through the aggressive and ambitious out-growers program.

Flower farming has a lot of potential in Rwanda because of the favourable climate and offers the best prospects for transforming rural economy.

Environmental destruction

The Rwanda government is also willing to set aside land for flower farming. In fact, there are plans to establish a floriculture demonstration centre on 200 hectares of land in the eastern province of Rwamagana aimed at developing the demand for rose flowers in the local market. The project is to be carried under public private partnership financing arrangement.

The project is said to be valued at US$21 million in investment cost and is expected to produce over 95million stems annually during the first phase. The production techniques will ensure that 95 percent of products are of export quality.

However, the Rwandan flower sector is not without its challenges. There are still high airfreight costs of the flowers to the export markets. There is also a lack of expertise n the flower sector.

In addition, there is also the under developed infrastructure from the rural areas to the airport and the resources to adopt irrigation methods.

One of the most troubling aspects of flower farming is the environmental destruction and damage that it can and has caused to east Africa’s wetlands.

Sided with industry

Juliet Musoke, Executive Director of the Uganda Flower Export Association, said: “The flower industry is highly regulated both at local and international market level. It undertakes environmental impact assessments and all of them National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) certified and MPS audited annually.”

But take the case of Rosebud Ltd, one of Uganda’s biggest and most lucrative flower farms. The farm is based at Entebbe, the airport town on the shores of Lake Victoria, and Lutembe Bay, a Ramsar-listed wetland of international importance and perhaps the most important area for the conservation of water birds in Uganda.

Rosebud Ltd is said to command around 40 percent of Uganda's raised export market. It’s a state of the art operation whose green houses run on a computerised hydroponics system. However, over the years their operations have been plagued by non-compliance when it comes to environmental protection.

In 2013, Lutembe Bay and local environmentalists lost the battle to save the wetlands, which holds the entire population of the migrant white-winged black tern, and about half of the migrant gull-billed tern, as trucks dumped dirt into the wetland until the soggy ground where papyrus once stood was firm and clear as one writer observed.

Rodney Muhumuza, from AP, wrote: “Uganda's environmental protection agency instead sided with industry, saying any damage inflicted upon the wetland didn't match the economic benefits of exporting more flowers.”

Innovative producer

Then there is the issue of pesticides and herbicides effluent runoff into nearby water bodies. In Kenya, conservationists are concerned that flower farming is having a devastating environmental impact on Lake Naivasha.

Population growth in these areas has also led to its own forms of pollution, adding to the toxic chemical pollution from flower farms.

Job opportunities on flower farms have attracted tens of thousands of the unemployed. In 2003, a report indicated that the number of people living within five kilometres of the lake had risen by 50,000 between 1980 and 2003.

The Oserian Development Company - known as Oserian Flowers - in Naivasha, Kenya is a potential role model for the East African floriculture industry.

Oserian supplies flowers globally and the company has been the recipient of the National Farmers Awards 2014 as the best employer. It was also named as most innovative African producer by Sainsbury’s for its level of commitment to environmental protection and working environment for staff.

Consumer demands

The farm is nearly a century old and sits on 200,000 acres. It currently employs 4,100 people, has nine educational institutions for its employees’ children - ranging from day care centres to kindergarten, primary to secondary schools - and a healthcare centre with ambulances and housing for staff.

Oserian has even developed a new way of fighting fungal diseases without resort to chemicals. The company uses geothermal steam in the greenhouse to get rid of the diseases. This method has reduced the use of chemicals by 25 percent.

The flower industry has become integral to the economies of many east African countries. However, this has had a significant impact on the environment - from local pollution to airfreight adding to climate change.

The hope is that European buyers will respond to consumer demands and encourage best practice - rather than simply demanding the lowest prices - from east African based producers. 

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades but is originally from Springfield Gardens, Queens, New York.

More from this author