East African Floriculture Blossoming

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Kenya’s entry onto the world horticultural stage

Central Kenya’s proximity to the equator provides ideal conditions for horticultural production to thrive, with a daily 12 hours of sunlight, volcanic soils rich in nutrients, and abundant lakes which offer the perfect sources of water for farming. Furthermore, the variety of elevations in the region makes it possible to grow a variety of crops within a small area.

A majority of the horticulture farms in Kenya are small-scale and labor intensive. However, due to pressure to maintain profit margins through improved production efficiency, there has been some migration to large, centrally run farms and the adoption of more technologically advanced farming methods. Horticultural sector growth is mainly driven by exports, but there is also steady domestic demand for products such as onions, mangos, and potatoes. As middle-class consumption habits around the world increasingly prioritize convenience, there has been greater demand for more “prepared” horticultural goods, including frozen vegetables and prepared bouquets. However, the export of higher-value prepared products can be subject to higher tariffs from regions like the European Union (EU).

Kenya’s horticulture sector is vibrant and growing, as exemplified by the rapid expansion of the country’s floriculture industry. Floriculture is a highly specialized and resource intensive process, but the payoff can be substantial. One farmer, working at an 18-hectare farm near Lake Naivasha was quoted as saying that the cost per flower stem is three to four Kenyan shillings (KES) for growth and five to seven KES for transport. That same stem can be sold for 20-30 KES. The profit from flower sales is driving an increase in the number of Kenyan floriculture operations. However, significant challenges remain if the industry is to continue to provide products of the desired quality and remain solvent during unfavorable weather or economic conditions. Economies of scale and close relationships with the final sellers of Kenyan flowers are essential for success. A diversification of export markets, as well as ensuring the environmental soundness of production methods, will help the sector and its growth to remain sustainable.

The cut flower industry has an annual worth of about $10.7 billion and in 2013, Kenya’s flower industry generated $533 million, a $34.8 million increase from the previous year. The industry directly contributes to 500,000 jobs and 2.2 million indirectly in the country.

Flower production in Kenya

Since the early 1990s, floriculture has been big business in Kenya. Many of the country’s farms are concentrated in the Lake Naivasha area, less than 100 kilometers northwest of the capital, Nairobi. The big players in the Kenyan floriculture industry include Finlay Farmers, Oserian, and Ravine Roses—all large-scale, commercial operations. Most farms cultivating flowers for export markets are large-scale, due to their ability to afford the extensive inputs and infrastructure necessary for successful cultivation. Equipment needed includes irrigation systems, net shading, ventilating systems, cold storage, artificial lighting, packaging sheds, and most importantly, refrigerated trucks for shipment.

Furthermore, larger-scale farms are better equipped to exercise control over the entirety of the production process and integration into complex, expansive product chains. Product chains capable of handling goods from the ground to the supermarket are increasingly becoming the norm in Kenya. This in turn better positions producers to fully reap the benefits of worldwide market growth.

Along with integrated product lines, there has been increased pressure for farmers to take environmental concerns into consideration. Environmentalists have pointed out Lake Naivasha’s significantly decreased water levels over the past 10-15 years, coinciding with the area’s floriculture growth. The lake’s pollution levels have also risen, and as farms intensively use pesticides, there is the potential for these chemicals to seep into the watershed. There are a number of ways for farmers to reduce their impact on the lake, including through the improved harvesting of rainwater, the use of highly efficient drip irrigation techniques, and applying more natural pesticides. The government, in turn, could have stricter controls on the release of chemicals into the lake, discouraging the practice by imposing fees on farmers.

There has also been greater pressure coming from environmentally-concerned consumers, who are increasingly aware of the transportation pollution associated with their fresh horticultural products. This in all likelihood will continue to be a concern in the years to come, until aviation transportation becomes greener.

Flower export trends in Kenya

The main flowers exported from Kenya consist of roses and carnations, but there are several other varieties grown in the country, including statice, lilies and solidago. The main export season lasts May through October; however, February consistently sees record profits due to Valentine’s Day in other countries.

About 85 percent of flowers grown in Kenya are exported to the EU, particularly Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. The EU carefully governs the quality and assortment of flowers, requiring plant-health certificates, as well as customs and phytosanitary inspections.

The export-heavy nature of the Kenyan floriculture sector means that it is particularly vulnerable to global macroeconomic cycles and shocks. For example, the global economic crisis of 2008 translated into lower flower prices. Even as the total volume of Kenyan flowers exported in 2008-2009 grew by 25 percent, the value of these flowers dropped by 8 percent. Recessions and slow economic growth caused foreign consumers, and by extension their grocery stores, to encourage price wars between suppliers. This ultimately depressed the prices obtained by farmers.

Interestingly, some specific floriculture markets, especially in Europe, did not experience a drop in demand during the economic crisis. According to one tulip expert, the recession actually drove an increase in his flower sales, as consumers who were no longer able to afford luxury goods were opting for the smaller luxury of flowers. In this scenario, it is possible that more affordable products like tulips did not suffer the same demand reduction as pricier flowers like roses, Kenya’s main export.

Although flower production is increasing, Kenyan floriculture continues to face challenges. In October 2014, Europe imposed tariffs on Kenya’s cut flowers due to a disagreement over the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). In the EPA, the EU offers particular countries duty-free access to their markets, while also making these countries promise to open up their markets to EU exports. The agreement is driven by European farmers and legislators seeing their markets being undercut by African imports. But African countries fear that opening their markets to European imports would stunt domestic industries, particularly any fledgling manufacturing industries. The disagreement over the EPAs is further fueled by accusations of unfair subsidies pouring from the EU in support of their own farmers, making it difficult for the two parties to be on a truly equal footing. Kenyan producers knew Europe’s tariffs could diminish their market share permanently, so the government reacted by signing onto to the EPA and “fast-tracking” its approval. Negotiations led to a lift of the ban, mitigating the damage to only a few months. Still, Kenya was forced to absorb the costs associated with its delayed signing of the agreement, and the Kenyan Flower Council estimated that exporters lost $3.6 million as a result. There are still many critics of the EPA agreements who argue that the terms are unfair and may ultimately hamper the growth of African industries.

Although the EPA issue has been resolved for now, it did help to highlight the dangers that come with a highly concentrated export market. Exports to the EU are the backbone of the Kenyan floriculture industry. If something changes within the EU market—tariffs, legislation, demand—the effect on Kenya could be devastating. There has been increasing interest on the part of Kenya to further diversify the countries to which it is exporting, particularly as the country’s floriculture industry continues to grow. Farmers are increasingly looking to China as a potential destination for their goods. China’s demand for roses has been growing significantly, and the recent launch of direct flights between the two countries is facilitating the growth of horticultural trade. Exports to the EU are unlikely to stop or even significantly diminish any time soon, but it is important for Kenya to develop alternative markets for its goods.

Regional competition

The extensive profit margins and employment opportunities presented by floriculture mean that it is a growing industry not only within Kenya, but also in many parts of East Africa. Since much of the suitable land for floriculture is already in use in Kenya, investors and farmers are increasingly seeking development opportunities in countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda.

These investments have seen mixed results, as Kenya has had many historical advantages for success in the floriculture market. With a good transportation system and a large airport, which already serves as an international and regional hub, Kenya has the infrastructure in place to rapidly export goods. When it comes to flowers, time is of the essence. The longer it takes to get from the production site to the shelf, the more the risk of the flower becoming damaged or rotting increases.

Ethiopia’s government, growers, and exporters have recently begun working towards gaining access to new markets for their products. While continuing to encourage trade with traditional European partners, Ethiopia has also begun exporting to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. These Middle Eastern markets represent potential, rather than current growth, for Ethiopia. The country hopes to establish a stronghold in areas that are not currently saturated with European or other African flowers. Exporters anticipate building an industry presence in untapped foreign markets with Ethiopian Airlines’ addition of direct flights between Addis Ababa to major hubs such as Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Moscow.

Last year the horticulture sector was Ethiopia’s fifth largest export revenue earner, up 7.2 percent from the year prior. and resulting in $245.46 million dollars in income, over $90 million of which came from flowers. Western, Southwestern, as well as parts of central Ethiopia have been identified as having the necessary agro-ecological conditions to support floriculture, and have been targeted for development opportunities by the Ethiopian government. The government is hoping to encourage this development through various floriculture-specific incentives, including tax holidays, allowing for cheaper imports of machinery, and offering improved access to credit. In 2004-2005, the value of Ethiopian horticultural exports was $28.5 million, but by 2013-2014, this had grown over 750 percent to $245 million.

Investors and government actors interested in Rwandan floriculture are similarly visible. A venture between the Rwandan government and Kenya’s Shalimar Flowers aims to bring Kenyan expertise to an undeveloped Rwandan flower sector. Located in the Rwamagana District, the government-owned, 35-hectare Gishari Flower Park is hoping to eventually produce around 44 million stems per year. In September 2014, Kenya’s East African Growers acquired a 25 percent stake in the project, an investment about which onlookers are enthusiastic. Other potential sites have been identified in almost every region of the country for floriculture production. Officials project that the industry will earn Rwanda $220 million each year by 2017.

Along with lack of regulations and labor, transportation remains a chief impediment. François Nsenga, founder of local consultancy NINAF, said it took him five days to transport 700 kilograms of lily stems from smallholder farms to the auction market. By that time, only half passed the necessary quality test. The flowers took two flights instead of one to reach the Netherlands, contributing to the compromised quality and a five cent per kilogram increased airline cost compared to their Kenyan peers.


Kenya’s floricultural successes have made East Africa an area of interest to global flower companies and traders. As worldwide demand for flowers continues to increase, countries in Eastern Africa can take advantage of their ideal growing conditions for a wide range of sought-after flowers. And as East Africa’s own domestic desire for flowers grows, fueled by a fast-expanding middle class, regional farms can expect to reap the benefits of a nearby emerging demand center.

Transportation, while an impediment to the shipment of any good, is of utmost importance to floriculture, as flowers are easily damaged and expire quickly. Decreases in transportation costs around the world have made it increasingly possible for more regions to commercially produce and export the fruits, vegetables, and flowers of the season. Therefore East Africa must maintain the competitive advantage provided by climate and geography by ensuring that its infrastructure keeps up with demand.

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