The Kenyan Cut Flower Industry & Global Market Dynamics
In my book, I explore how the global cut flower market influences regional development in Kenya. In the past decades, Kenya has become one of the main producers of cut flowers for the European market. In many regions of the country, the cut flower industry is the main employer and the main driver of change in social-ecological systems. The book scrutinises major shifts in European flower consumption and trade: the market entry of supermarket chains and the rising importance of direct trade. I then show that, on the one hand, the Kenyan flower industry has restructured itself as a consequence of these dynamics and, on the other hand, is one of the main facilitators of this new market order.
A major step in the flower value chain happens even before production: the breeding of new varieties that suit new consumption patterns or promise higher productivity. Cut flowers are then mostly grown in greenhouses on farms anywhere between 1 and 250 hectares. Growing cut flowers is a costly and technically sophisticated process. For instance, it usually involves drip irrigation systems and cool stores. Flowers are then usually trucked to Nairobi and from there flown to Europe – most of them to the Netherlands, the global hub for flower trade. From there, they either go directly to importers or are auctioned through FloraHolland, a grower cooperative. Through agents, supermarkets often buy directly in the Netherlands; whereas florist shops are supplied by wholesalers.
I carried out most of the empirical fieldwork between 2014 and 2018, but also includes recent dynamics such as the consequences of the global Covid-pandemic.
In Goethe’s poem, the choir of angels extolls roses as a luxurious and divine flower: “Roses, you dazzling ones // Balsam you’re sending us (…)”
Compare that to a mono bouquet of 14 roses for €1,99 you often see at the entrance of a supermarket – the ultimate ‘fast moving consumer good’. I think this illustrates very well the cultural change roses and hence, also the economic shift rose trade and production have undergone in the last decades.
The book focuses on the area around Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley, about 80 km northwest of Nairobi. This region is by far the most important production area in East Africa and one of the biggest flower production hubs in the world. Here, many dynamics in global cut flower production and trade can be observed in a very concentrated way.
Until today, roses are by far the most sold flower in the world. But especially modern floral trends tend to incorporate a more diverse set of varieties. Kenyan producers adapt to this trend and produce more and more so called ‘summer flowers’, like Alstroemeria, Hypericum or Limonium.
We are at a crucial point in global flower trade and production. Inflation in Europe has led to stagnating demand especially for supermarket flowers. However, at the same time, flower producers in the Netherlands are giving up production as they cannot afford to heat their greenhouses (usually done with gas) anymore. Thus, the current situation offers both risks and opportunities for the Kenyan cut flower industry. In my opinion, those who are able to supply the products with constant demand – upper supermarket segment and high-value flowers – will profit from this situation. This could be a chance for the Kenyan industry in general to upgrade its production: this market segment is more targeted at quality and margins are higher.
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ANDREAS GEMÄHLICH is an Expert for International Trade & Development. Between 2013 and 2019 he was part of the interdisciplinary research group ‘Resilience, Collapse and Reorganisation of Social-Ecological System in East African Savannahs’ at the Department of Geography, University of Bonn.