Samuel Machora, 55, is one of the farmers who have embraced small scale flower farming in Kenya’s Central Province.
Mr Machora has been farming since he left secondary school 27 years ago. However, his flower ‘farm,’ which occupies only an eighth of an acre on his six-acre plot in Gatanga, 61 kilometres from Nairobi, turns out to be his major source of revenue, beating the four acres of tea and a vegetable and a fruit venture he tried before.
The flowers earn him from Ksh4,000 ($47) a month during the low season to as much as Ksh40,000 ($470) during the peak seasons. He spends approximately Ksh5,000 ($59) for maintenance of the flowers and he gets seeds from his own farm. He said the months of July and August are low season because of the summer in Europe, during which countries there produce their own flowers as the climate is favourable.
Many upcoming small-scale flower farmers like Mr Machora grow the summer flowers, which are easier and cheaper to manage than roses which have to be grown under special conditions in greenhouses and on a large scale to make any returns.
Summer flowers can be mixed with other flowers to make a bouquet.
When Wilmar Agro Ltd, a flower exporting firm based in Thika, 50km north of Nairobi and about 11 kilometres from Gatanga, came knocking with free flower seeds and a promise of free training, marketing and transport, Mr Machora was among the few farmers who agreed to try the venture. Wilmar Ltd donated free summer flower seeds of Arabicum and Onis in 2010.
Wilmar Ltd has since contracted 4,000 farmers across Kenya, in Central, Rift Valley, Western and Eastern Province for the production of summer flowers, which are sold in stem form.
The flowers are grown in an open field under a shade that can be made of nets or polythene bags, unlike a greenhouse, which calls for total closure.
The farmers are divided into 160 groups with each group having an agronomist (field officer) to guide them from planting through to harvesting, enabling the farm to export high quality flowers and fetch higher revenues.
The firm said it exports summer flowers to Holland, the global market leader, from where the flowers are redistributed to the other markets.
Eight farmers have formed a group led by Mr Machora in Gatanga to enable them to deal with a local exporter. Exporters prefer dealing with farmers who are in an organised group.
These farmer in the past two months have grown the Aramanthus and Onis Goblin summer flowers on trial.
The flower stems are measured in heights of between 35 and 70 centimetres while gate prices have risen to between Ksh3 (US Cents 30) and Ksh5 (US cents 50) from between Ksh1.50 and Ksh2, an average of US cents 20 in the past one year.
The longer the stem, the better the price. The flowers can be harvested for two years concurrently before opening a new field. Onis, for example, the most popular flower with Mr Machora and his group, is harvested once a week for two years, and then takes between four and six months dormancy.
The volume of flowers produced in Kenya is hoped to increase in the next two years as more small-scale farmers embrace flower farming.
“There was a ready market and good prices for the flowers unlike in the case of vegetables and fruits, where buyers determine the price and lack of storage makes most of them go bad,” Mr Machora told The EastAfrican at his farm in Gatanga.
Experts said production of flowers is shifting to Africa due to escalating production costs in Europe, impacts of climate change, high energy costs required to heat greenhouses and shortage of labour, putting Kenya at an advantage over its neighbours Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.
Kenya Flower Council reports indicate on the global front, a growth of 5 per cent is anticipated every year over the next five years. Dick van Raamsdonk, the organizer of international floriculture trade fairs in different regions of the world has settled on Kenya as the nation to beat just a year after he brought the International Floricultural Trade and Exhibition to Nairobi for the first time in his 20-years in the blooms business. The exhibition slated for June will see East African states of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda participate together with auction houses, wholesalers and retailers from all over the world making the Kenya event a unique affair. He attributes this to a shift to direct procurement as opposed to the traditional auctions, and buyers are keen to see the produce from the source.
There is a shortage of flowers at the global auctions due to reduced production as a result of climate change in Columbia and Ecuador, the second and third largest growers after Kenya.
“South America is reducing the area under production due to increasing land prices and development of real estate and Kenya is expected to fill the gap,” added Jane Ngige, KFC chief executive officer.
Approximately 65 per cent of exported flowers are sold through Dutch auctions, although direct sales are growing.
In the United Kingdom, supermarkets are the main retail outlets. Other growing destinations include Japan, Russia and the US. Over 25 per cent of exported flowers are delivered directly to these markets, providing an opportunity for value addition at source through sleeving, labelling and bouquet production. The recent launch of direct flights to South Korea by Korean Air is expected to boost flower exports to Korea and its neighbours.
According to Korean ambassador to Kenya Kim-Chan-Woo, the airline is confident of the Kenyan market, adding that the cargo flights will be key in transporting flowers and coffee back to Korea, Japan and China.
Flowers originating in Kenya have previously been sourced through middlemen in Europe, making them expensive in Asia, while reducing quality.
Farmers and exporters decried the lack of government and parastatal support to flower farmers compared with other sectors like maize, especially where there are no volunteers like Wilmar.
It is expensive to import raw materials ranging from seeds to fertilisers with no helping hand. In 2011, flowers earned Kenya Ksh 46 billion ($548 million), up from Ksh36 billion ($429 million) in 2010, with 117,713 tonnes in 2009, 120,220 tonnes in 2010 and 121,891 tonnes in 2011.
The sector has grown annually by 15 per cent in value and volumes, defying political and weather uncertainties while providing employment to an estimated 500,000 people (including over 90,000 flower farm employees) The sector is growing faster than the 10 per cent growth envisaged under Vision 2030. Indeed the experts say the sector could grow at 20 per cent by 2030.
Wilmar exports 13 million stems a year and hopes to increase the volume to 20 million a year in the next two years. The company retains only 20 per cent of the Ksh150 million ($1.8 million) in revenues it earns annually.
“The flight costs take the largest share of 40 per cent, marketing and the farmers take 20 per cent each,” said Wilmar Agro Executive Director Wilfred Kamami. Farmers have been complaining of brokers taking the lion’s share of their profits, offering them prices far lower thanthe global prices.
Farmers wil have an opportunity to meet global buyers at the June auction and will probably be visited at their farms as the industry sees a shift to direct procurement as opposed to the traditional auctions.
In the era of technology, Mr Machora said, the producers check the global flower prices website for updates on the pricing of each flower type.
“If we realise that prices have gone up, we ask the buyers to increase the gate price. Failure by the exporters to adjust the gate price means we shift to other exporters. They are ready to buy our flowers,” explained Mr Machora.