17 Apr 2020

Tough times for East African flower growers

Flowers are big business in Kenya. In 2018 floriculture earned KES113 billion (around €976 million), making it the fourth largest contributor of foreign exchange. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that.

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Dennis Gakuru, Fairtrade Officer and HR Assistant at the Fairtrade certified Valentine Growers in Kiambu, Kenya.
© Fairtrade International / Funnelweb Media

“The cut-flower industry is confronting the harsh reality of the virus, which puts in peril one of Kenya’s most successful and internationally acclaimed sectors,” said Carol Karuga, CEO of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA). Speaking at the launch of the ‘Flowers of Hope’ campaign, she added: “We want to use Kenyan flowers as a uniting symbol, which will also help in saving thousands of farm jobs.”

According to reports from Fairtrade Africa, most farms are exporting less than a third of their daily production to Europe, which makes up 70 percent of their export market. Many workers have been laid off or are on compulsory leave, and it’s a story repeated across the region’s other main flower growing countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia.

“We're already hearing reports of tens of thousands of workers who've been sent home on compulsory leave or that temporary contracts ended earlier," said Anna Barker, senior supply chain manager for flowers at the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK. "Flower workers don't always earn a lot of money to have savings. We're really concerned that they won't have enough food on their table."

It’s a concern echoed by industry insiders. ”Because of the lockdowns in our main markets, flowers are not seen as a necessity, but more of a luxury,” Clement Tulezi, CEO of the Kenya Flower Council, told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. "Cash flows have become an issue and we had to look at how to remain afloat. The first thing to look at was the workers because wages take up 45 percent of any flower farm operation."

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A solitary worker picking roses at the Fairtrade certified Valentine Growers in Kiambu, Kenya.
© Fairtrade International / Funnelweb Media

The impact on workers is all too obvious in the vast, eerily quiet greenhouses of Fairtrade certified Valentine Growers just north of Nairobi. This should be one of the busiest times of the year for shipping roses to Europe, but now there are barely any workers in sight under the acres of polythene sheeting.

“We would normally expect to ship 2.4 million stems in March,” says Dennis Gakuru, HR assistant and Fairtrade Officer. “But we could only send 1.2 million - a 50 percent decrease. Just yesterday we had to destroy a whole container of roses because we couldn’t ship them. We’ve got less than a third of our labourers working, we’ve had to send the rest home as there is nothing for them to do.”

With the global air freight system mostly grounded because of the coronavirus pandemic, there are few options for Valentine Growers - and the many other flower farms in the region - to get their highly-perishable cargoes to consumers in Europe.

“It’s getting worse with every day that passes,” says Dennis. “At the moment we are able to pay the workers who have been laid off, but no-one knows how long it will last. We may have to ask them to take unpaid leave.”

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A greenhouse full of roses - but no workers - at the Fairtrade certified Valentine Growers in Kiambu, Kenya.
© Fairtrade International / Funnelweb Media

Most of the workers live on site and are highly dependent on the dispensary, school, nursery and other facilities which are funded by the Fairtrade Premium - the extra sum of money which workers decide for themselves how to spend.

Now even those facilities are under threat. “We managed to place an order for masks, sanitisers and hand soap for the dispensary,” says Dennis. “But we don’t know when we will get it. We have had to cut the number of clinic appointments by half because we don’t have enough personal protection equipment (PPE) to operate social distancing effectively between medical staff and patients.”

Management and union representatives are working to ensure that workers and their families at least have enough to eat. “We are prioritising getting food on the table,” he adds. “Many workers are really scared. They are literally living hand to mouth, they don’t know where their next meal will come from. We try to stay positive, we are working together to source and buy food for as long as possible. We are using the Fairtrade premium to provide each worker with a package of different food items such as cooking oil, rice and flour, which will be enough for at least one month. Hopefully by then things will have cooled off.”