As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged every industry and all walks of life, the international cut flower trade showed remarkable resilience and, at some point, unexpected outcomes.

During that period, both importers and exporters faced incredible challenges: the lockdowns imposed by governments in the majority of countries restricted staff from working and made sourcing supplies difficult; transporting flowers to shipping and distribution points became almost impossible; airfreight diminished and prices rocketed; expansion plans and innovative projects were put on hold. And yet, flower demand remained stable and even increased, flower suppliers delivered, and the industry has remained healthy in general terms. As the world slowly reopens and activity resumes worldwide, we analyse lessons learned and emerging trends.

The numbers
An overview of global trade in cut flowers over the past decade (Fig. 1) shows significant fluctuations in total world exports, notably in 2015, when economic and political turmoil negatively affected Russian imports and fluctuating exchange rates impacted imports from Europe. Between the years 2016 and 2019 it shows a steady recovery, but before numbers could get back to pre-2015 levels, the pandemic hit, and 2020 again shows a decrease, albeit less pronounced.

A look at the top importers of cut flowers around the world in the same ten year period further yields interesting results (Fig.2).

The USA has sustained its growth pattern as the largest cut flower importer globally, a position at times disputed by Germany, but which the US has now clearly surpassed. Imports from The Netherlands have remained mostly stable over the past decade and even increased in 2020.

The Russian market continues to decline, and imports from the UK are also on a downward trend, which appeared to reverse in 2018 but continued in 2019 and 2020; Poland, on the other hand, is emerging as a new destination, although its market share is still tiny. The category “rest of the world”, composed of over 100 countries, shows significant variations but was substantially reduced in 2020. It is possible that wellestablished exporters in the main flower supplying countries were better able to face the hurdles imposed by the pandemic. 

An analysis of cut flower export statistics by country also yields interesting results. The Netherlands keeps its traditional and significantly large share of the global export market (includes re-exports) but has lost ground over the past decade – from 56 per cent in 2011 to 48 per cent in 2019 and 50 per cent in 2020. Colombia, Ecuador, and Kenya keep their respective second, third, and fourth places in the international floriculture scene, and Ethiopia has secured its presence. These four countries export large quantities of roses, but there are differences in their product mix and destination markets. For example, Colombia now produces over 50 flower types. It has gained a stronghold in the bouquet business, especially in North America, while Kenyan roses have become a staple in Europe and hold a 40 per cent share of that market. Due to strong government support for Ethiopian Airlines, large, long-stemmed roses from Ethiopia reach various countries, including the US, which continued to transport flower cargo throughout the pandemic. China is starting to surface, with exports valued at 125 million USD in 2020.

Belarus is virtually non-existent as a flower exporter in 2011, reported a similar figure in 2020. Although there is some local production of flowers, the country is mainly a transit hub for flowers from Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya and the Netherlands, 99% of which are destined to the Russian market, with small amounts reaching Lithuania and Kazakhstan.

Also to be noted is the fact that shares held by previously important exporters like Spain, Belgium and Italy are shrinking, and the category “rest of the world” has lost ground, especially in 2020.

Aside from value, volumes of flowers traded are also an important indicator, especially during the pandemic when exporters worldwide reported price increases. Information on flower tonnages is not as readily available for all countries and is not measured in a standard manner (e.g. some countries report volume by weight, others by flower units. But the comparison between volume (in metric tonnes) and value (USD thousands) in four countries (Fig. 4) does not show a significant change in this respect.

Lessons, future trends
When the world came to a halt in March 2020, flower growers and exporters worldwide became highly alarmed. Kenya reported that in the first half of 2020, exports plummeted by 20 per cent, Colombia and Ecuador reported similar initial scenarios. Logistics and distribution channels, especially shipping and freight, were seriously disrupted. Thousands of events regularly using flowers got cancelled (weddings, receptions, hotels, to name a few), and millions of flowers went to waste.

Fifteen months later, however, reductions for last year are much smaller:

  • Six per cent for Ecuador
  • Four per cent for Colombia
  • Three per cent for Ethiopia

Kenya reports that they expect to be “100 per cent back in business”. What happened? Simply put, flower consumption increased with the lockdown. But, points out Sylvie Mamias, Secretary General of Union Fleurs, “will all the new pandemic consumers keep buying at such levels when a “more normal life” resumes? Will online sales keep growing at the same pace? Do they take market shares away from the more traditional flower outlets or do they bring in new flower consumers?”

The pandemic has also made consumers more keenly aware of environmental issues. “Source locally” has become a trend in Europe and the USA to reduce the carbon footprint and support domestic production. The impact of this, when consumers in major markets around the world rely so heavily on imported flowers, remains to be seen. Still, no doubt exporters will strengthen their efforts to produce sustainably even further.

On another front, points out Sylvie, political turmoil in various countries may affect flower trade: events in Belarus Russia and Ukraine could disrupt the market. In addition, there is rising political protectionism, and a refocus on national interest first rather than the globalisation of trade & markets, as shown by Brexit. For flowers specifically, Ukraine, for example, introduced extra import tariffs on imported roses for three years to protect its domestic producers from “unfair competition”. This action could impact nearby markets such as Russia and, consequently, raise imports from Africa, South America and the Netherlands.

Hard as it is to predict the future, flower exporters remain optimistic at this time and want to show their resilience. “We are already seeing an 18 per cent increase growth in flower exports this year with respect to last year,” says Carolina Pantoja at ASOCOLFLORES, the Colombian Association of flower exporters. “We are reaching new markets, developing sea freight for our flowers and strengthening our sustainability initiative”, reports Daniela Contreras from EXPOFLORES Ecuador. “Kenya is the dominant supplier of cut flowers to the European Union, and is embarking on an aggressive market diversification strategy targeting markets like the Middle East, Russia, Australia, China, Korea and the USA”, declares Clement Tulezi at the Kenya Flower Council.