In the past four decades East Africa has grown into a flower production region of global importance. How did this happen?
An abundance of available labour coupled with low wages has influenced the development of East African flower production. But there are lots of African countries that have low wages so that cannot be the sole reason for success. So what is?
Certainly stability is an important factor. Both politically and economically, Kenya and Ethiopia have had a relatively stable investment climate compared to other African countries. Although Kenya has a more liberal economy and Ethiopia has a more Marxist one, both governments have tried to stimulate floral production because of its positive influence on employment and exports.
In contrast to the benefits of this stability, there have been negative aspects. Politics in Kenya haven’t been that stable lately and there were riots in Ethiopia when angry rebels burned down nurseries. But no doubt political and economic stability has been a plus for the region.
On top of that, both Kenya and Ethiopia already had relatively strong regional economies when their flower industries started. This means there already existed well-established trade networks and usable logistics. This made it easier to export flowers from Nairobi or Addis Ababa than it was from Accra or Harare.
Both in Kenya and Ethiopia emergent companies were soon strong and wise enough to form trade associations. Early on there was cooperation to invest in greenhouses, fertilizer, etc. Cooperation also developed quickly in logistics so that flowers could be flown from Nairobi and Addis Ababa airports to destinations worldwide. It is remarkable that unlike Latin America, East Africa has embraced the cooperative principle. Many growers, both with and without Dutch backgrounds, joined Royal FloraHolland. Not that this is an easy process. Organizations like Royal FloraHolland should do their utmost to be cognizant of what African growers need from their cooperatives.
A good example of cooperating is the Flower Business Park near Lake Naivasha where growers from Kenya and abroad joined together with Dutch breeders to create a robust production area. Although growers in Kenya came from different backgrounds (Kenyan/British, Kenyan/Indian and Dutch), they managed to create a floral awareness in the region thanks to organizations like the Kenya Flower Council. And although Ethiopian floristry has a different history, this floral awareness arose there, too. Governments see the added value of the floral business for their economy. Growers themselves have started to train their staff and take care of health care and education for them.
Being aware of opportunities has been vital in developing the East African floral business. Kenyan production started at low altitudes like Lake Naivasha and led to the production of so-called ‘supermarket roses’. The Equator, for example, boasts exceptional conditions for growing roses: steady temperatures and twelve hours of sunlight per day. Soon growers in Kenya and Ethiopia discovered the advantages of growing at higher altitudes, allowing them to cultivate long stem, large bud roses for a high-end market.
Where there are positives there are also potential negatives. We already mentioned possible political instability which could lead to economic instability. Additionally, growers in East Africa have to deal with four or more currencies (Euro, US dollar, Asian and Australian currencies in addition to local currencies). This point is well worth considering.
Another possible threat lies in sustainability. Most East African growers try to cultivate with as little damage to the environment as possible. But you don’t have to be clairvoyant to predict that someday consumers in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia will start asking questions about flowers transported halfway around the world that only last one week.
Still, East Africa has become a major, steadily growing player in global flower production due in part to a well-established infrastructure. With good logistic connections, not only to Europe but also to regions like the US, Asia and Australia, East Africa is here to stay as a leading floral producer.