Caught on the thorns

Clasping a bouquet of roses, Paul Nyaga smiled. “Yes,’’ he said, “there is someone I want to give flowers to on Valentine’s Day, but the flowers won’t be from here—I’ll get them from the field.’’

All around him hundreds of workers were sorting blooms, assembling bouquets and wrapping them into packaging complete with British supermarket logos and price tags, in the giant packing hall of Oserian flower farm in central Kenya.

Nyaga (26), a young man in a brown shirt and blue baseball cap, was checking the labels on a boxful of roses destined for a Sainsbury’s shelf. “Same Price.
Same Quality. Now Fairtrade,’’ the label said.

“I don’t know what Fairtrade means,’’ Nyaga confessed.

Britons spend more than £1,5-billion a year on cut flowers, and Kenya has nearly a quarter of the market, which peaks around February 14 as millions of Britons give flowers to loved ones on Valentine’s Day. As many as 50 000 people now work in Kenya’s flower industry, and for the past few weeks they have been working flat out to meet orders.

The industry, now the country’s second-largest exporter, is driving the expansion of Kenya’s economy and is fuelling a population boom on the shores of Lake Naivasha.

But the British love of roses has led to a trade-off between economic progress, environmental destruction and social problems.

At the Oserian farm, where 5 000 ­workers labour in a sprawl of greenhouses from where shipments head to Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and other British outlets, the Fairtrade brand is seen as a way to polish the industry’s tarnished image and balance the competing interests of business and Lake Naivasha’s ecosystem.

For years, human rights groups lambasted Kenya’s mainly foreign-owned flower companies over low pay, chemical hazards and the plight of workers.

Conditions have improved since then and the ethical imperative has also prompted the farm to reduce its environmental impact.

“Since Fairtrade has come in, the company is more careful with employees,’’ said Isaac Mwagi, chairperson of the self-help group that manages the workers’ Fairtrade money in Oserian. “Before, there was just two months maternity leave, but now it is 100 days.’’

Not all is rosy in Oserian’s garden, however. Recently workers rioted after being sacked en masse for striking in a dispute over wages and working conditions.

Fairtrade roses went on sale only two years ago, and most workers do not recognise the name. But it has a direct impact on their lives: 8% of the export price comes back to Oserian to be invested in community projects. That translates as about £2 000 a month from British sales, while a similar brand in Switzerland, Max Havelaar, netted the workers a premium of £124 000 last year.

“Some people don’t understand the concept,” admitted Mwagi. “They want cash, and you have to explain that they need to identify a project—because the concept says the project should benefit the majority and not an individual.’’

Though jobs in the flower farms are keenly sought after, environmentalists fear the impact of extracting water from the lake and the risks of pollution from pesticides.

Thousands of migrant labourers have arrived, like David Gikundi, who came from northern Kenya where he was a small-scale tea farmer: the starting wage with Oserian is about £39 a month—more than double Kenya’s minimum wage.

But business success—even for firms that produce ethical brands—encourages yet more migration, which ultimately threatens the environment.

“It’s going to be a challenge to maintain the environment of the lake,’’ admitted Sean Finlayson, roses manager at Oserian. “Because this isn’t going to decrease. It’s going to get bigger and bigger. The population around the lake, maybe 150 000 people, have no sewage facilities, people are washing their clothes in the lake. They’re all coming because of the flower farms.’’—Â

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