Spray carnation
There's still a future in carnations

Located in Azemmour, 55 km South of Casablanca, Morocco, Primrose has made a name for itself in growing spray carnations destined for export, especially to the British market.

Renowned for its production of Damask roses for the perfume industry, Morocco has also been a significant supplier of cut roses in the ‘90’s. At that time, the association of flower exporters, AMPEX, calculated roughly 400 ha of cut flower production, of which 300 ha were roses, mainly located in the south of the country, around Agadir and Marrakech.

Unfortunately, the development of cut rose production in Sub-Saharan Africa has ruined the Moroccan rose industry, which suffers higher labour costs. Farms disappeared or switched to other crops.

Deeply rooted in horticulture

FCI met with Ali Bennani Smires, general manager of Primrose, which succeeded in shifting to a viable ornamental production. When asked about the company’s history Bennani Smires said that the brand name reflects many years of experience in the horticultural industry. “Our family was among the pioneers who developed greenhouse tomato production in the early ‘70s. We introduced our first hectare of roses in 1984 and later expanded up to 11 hectares. The year 1989 marked the start of spray carnation production. Gradually, spray carnations took over and eventually totally replaced roses, with 40 hectares under poly greenhouses today.”

The company grows more than just carnations: they grow Freesia and Amaryllis bulbs on 8 hectare of land for a Dutch propagator and cultivate other flower species for the local market: Gladioli, Gerbera, Lisianthus, Celosia, Anthurium, as well as new items such as Kalanchoe cut flowers. These flowers are mainly sold through the company’s florist shop Fleuritel in Casablanca. The farm also grows 42 hectares of avocados.

Carnation production

Carnation rooted cuttings are sourced from various breeders, in order to offer a wide range of varieties. They are planted in a mix of peat and perlite to serve as mother stock, from which cuttings are made for cut flower production. Pest management is essential: “We have a dedicated staff for the mother stock production and strict sanitation measures. Furthermore, we renew our mother stock annually, to reduce potential quality and phytosanitary issues,” outlined the company’s production manager Mohamed Boudinar. “Regarding cut flowers, the whole production used to be in full soil, but we are gradually shifting to substrate production, in order to avoid soil-born fungus and disease, especially fusarium.”

Today, only 35 % of the production still remains in full soil. The company uses glue traps to monitor winged mite infestation and recently introduced biological enemies and biostimulants.

To compensate for low humidity levels in summer, greenhouses are being gradually fitted with fog systems. The main technical problem was the salinity of the water, because of the proximity of the sea and the water table. Reverse osmosis was introduced, but this was too expensive for carnations. Together with other farmers, Primrose invested in a 35-km pipe to bring fresh water from the largest river in Morocco, Oum Errabiâ to the farms. The water is pumped very close to the estuary, thus using a water resource that would otherwise be wasted in the ocean.

Quality and sustainability are high on Primrose’s agenda. The company is involved in several certification programs such as GlobalGap, MPS-ABC and ETI (Ethical Trade Initiative). For Ali Bennani Smires, growing responsibly creates access to European markets and to long term viability.

From wholesale to supermarkets

Primrose exports 90% of their carnations to British supermarkets, through Dutch exporters, the other 10% going to Holland and Germany. This has not always been the case. “We started shipping our flowers to wholesalers across Europe, but it turned out that carnations were becoming a commodity item, more suitable for main stream markets. This, together with the strong development of British supermarkets, led us to redirect our sales. In hindsight, the company is happy with this decision, which allowed them to grow year-round, strengthen quality and production planning and finally to ensure the continued existence of the staff know-how,” commented Bennani Smires.

Asked about possible consequences of Brexit, he said that Morocco is facing the same uncertainty as any other supplier, especially regarding the strong devaluation of the British pound.

In order to reduce their risks, Primrose signed contracts with their main customers and has exchange risk insurance. “From a wider perspective, the path to a sustainable business is narrow, since Dutch exporters have to find the right balance between maintaining attractive consumer prices to support consumption and maintaining a viable return to the growers.”

Working with the international flower trade association Union Fleurs, Ali Bennani Smires is actively promoting free trade. “Negotiations led to signing a free trade agreement with the European Union. We are confident that the United Kingdom will duplicate the same kind of agreement with Morocco since carnation production does not compete with local production.”

What’s the future for Moroccan carnations?

“The market has become tougher, but we have been experiencing a parallel drop in carnation world consumption and production, resulting in quite stable prices,” explained Bennani Smires. He continued, “We always have to struggle to prosper, but our quality is recognized in Europe. Morocco has several strong comparative advantages:  a stable currency, low inflation rates and reasonable labour costs when compared with productivity.

The Atlantic climate, influenced by the Gulf Stream, brings mild winters and temperature summers. “Thanks to this situation, we can grow flowers year-round with consistent weekly supply volumes. This is actually the key to our success, since our customers do not have to look for other sources of supply during the summer months,” summarized Bennani Smires the benefits of the company.

However, the strongest asset may be logistics: transport companies can truck the flowers to the United Kingdom in four days door to door, through Gibraltar Detroit, ensuring a cold chain from the farm packing house to the customer. “If you look at different countries worldwide, you will notice that the two major costs, labour and transportation are often opposite, because the cheapest producing countries are geographically further from the markets. Our transportation costs are between 2 and 3 pence per stem, which is much lower than other countries. With this in mind, trucking flowers remains a more viable option than by air and is much more flexible than shipping by sea.”

Faith in the future

In conclusion, Primrose’s general manager expresses faith in the future. “We should have closed our doors several times these past several years, but passion pushed us to go on and capitalize on our comparative advantages, with the support of our parent company, a Moroccan leader in the production and export of cherry tomatoes and citrus. In 2013, the Dutch Flower Group granted us their prestigious Preferred Supplier Award. Our steady activity allows us to keep our workers year-round, thus consolidating ours staff’s know-how and quality. So yes, I strongly believe in our future and are presently expanding carnation production by five hectares.”

by Marie-Françoise Petitjean

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