[Column] Bob Koigi: Safeguarding gains of Kenya’s flower sector
The announcement by Kenya’s national carrier, Kenya Airways, that it would start direct cargo flights to USA in December this year remains one of the most iconic developments for the Kenyan flower industry that has for years made spirited efforts to capture one of the most promising markets in the recent past.
It is a development that sums up the zeal and dedication of the players in an industry that has weathered many storms to remain competitive and a global darling.
The sector has attracted international investors as a result of a robust manpower, strategic location, good weather and solid infrastructure.
With a composition of large and medium flower farms and recently smallholder growers what remains poignant is the investment of the players in the industry to sustainability across the value chain, skilled manpower, innovation and self-regulation that has even become a global benchmark.
Emerging markets like Asia, Russia, Middle East and US are positioning the country's flower exports at an even higher earning scale with the Kenya Flower Council reports indicating that on the global front, a growth of 5 per cent is anticipated every year over the next five years.
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.
This means that 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.
What is now projected to up the production further is the entry of smallholder farmers. Researchers hail this as a way to create a good mix between the traditional large companies who concentrate on the high end flowers and small scale farmers now into alternative, easier to cultivate flowers like summer flowers.
But even as attention continues to be concentrated on increasing and diversifying markets, production though not heavily affected hasn’t been impressive.
And with new markets opening up fast, demand will need to be matched with consistent and high production. And this means flower growers both small and large scale would require necessary assistance and infrastructure to up production.
This production pitfalls should be the concern of everyone from growers to government. Pests for example have been every grower’s nightmare. What has taken months to nurture and tend to may be spoilt in a matter of seconds by voracious and sap hungry pests.
Infact Bridgenet Africa, a not for government institution, that works actively with farmers in Africa has identified pests in flowers and horticultural produce as one of the major drawbacks that has stagnated production and discouraged flower growers especially smallholder who are new to the trade.
Most of these pests have developed resistance to conventional pesticides rendering them impotent and leaving farmers with a barrage of frustrations.
Then there is the threat of climate change that flower growers have to contend with. In fact the reason Kenya is doing so well in terms of flower production and exports is because traditional flower producing behemoths like Columbia and Ecuador are grappling with an acute shortage of exports due to reduced production as a result of climate change which has taken its toll on flower farms.
New pests and diseases that are resistant to conventional pests have voraciously chewed thousands and thousands of tonnes of these stems and petals leaving these countries high and dry.
Ironically the same factors that have boosted our flower sales are imminent in our country and continent. And it is a matter of time before they strike.
But while there are grave problems facing one of the most important pearls of the country’s economy, the will and zeal by industry players to tackle them head on is promising resilience in the wake of an unpredictable future.
Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor of East Africa at Africa Business Communities