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If you are feeling anxious about Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for those working in the floral industry. For them, this is the busiest time of the year, and it’s largely about just one flower: the ubiquitous red rose.

Ahead of February 14, Gulf News visited Black Tulip Flowers, the region’s largest floral company, to gain an insight into how they deliver millions of Valentine’s Day roses in 35 countries worldwide.

The Sharjah-based company begins operations at 3.45am when most of us are still in bed, to prepare for their biggest days of flower sales.

“We are the third largest flower grower in the world and this is the peak time for our business so one can well imagine what’s it like here,” said the company’s owner and chairman M.M. Ehiya, an Indian expert who started from a small flower shop on Sharjah’s King Faisal Road in 1990.

Finlays shut down their farms, Chemirei and Tarakwet, in Kericho (Kenya) on 25th December. However, they will continue to expand their Lemotit farm in Londiani, and they will double the size of their packhouse. But what is the reason for the closedown of the Kericho Farm? What will happen with the employees and how will they continue? We had a chat with Piet Kelderman, Commercial Manager of Finlay Flowers who explained it all.

The shutdown - costs too high
In April 2018 Finlay Flowers announced that it would be closing its operations in Kericho over a three year phased program. Recently, the company decided to accelerate the closure and brought the date forward by twelve months. But what was the reason for this decision? “The costs”, says Kelderman, “Specifically around labour. When Finlay Flowers started in Kericho in 1989, its labour costs were aligned with the tea industry and it remains like this to this day. The salaries are higher – approximately twice as high as the rest of the flower industry in Kenya and this has made the farms in Kericho uncompetitive.”

Molo River Roses Ltd met the required threshold to emerge among the top by winning two exceptional awards. Spear of the nation award and excellence based award are the two accolades the company claimed.

When we moved in, the first thing we had to do is was to clear the bushes and flatten some of the termite hills. We had to design an inroad and gravel it. Getting labour from within was a problem as the locals would prefer to work for a half day in the neighbouring small scale farms than to work the whole day in the flower farm. Getting outside labour was also a problem as the farm is in an isolated place and no housing around. We have since overcome these problems and the farm is now running smoothly.

All said and done, this has been my best job since joining the industry. It is a baby I have seen been conceived, born and now walking. We have had a number of challenges but every challenge has provided us with an opportunity to learn from.

I would like to see Molo River Roses being the preferred supplier of choice for quality flowers to major markets in the world. As a new farm, there are a number of things we need to do to achieve this vision. The list of priorities is long but top on it is the need to improve the technical skills of our staff through trainings. We are also working on setting up sustainable systems which can guarantee quality products throughout the year. Above all we are working on developing a good market for our products.

Irrigation in greenhouses can be a major challenge for some managers because water supply and water quality can considerably affect the success of the crop. However, regular water analysis is not always a common practice in many greenhouses.

Considering that water may be coming from many sources throughout the year, there can be variability in quality. That’s why it is important to look in a water analysis.

The water provided by rivers, dams and boreholes can have variable chemistry throughout the year. Why is this important? Water quality can impact a growing medium’s pH because of high or low water alkalinity.

Therefore, a periodic water sampling and analysis program will keep tabs on the minerals or nutrients present in the water and which can affect a growing medium’s pH and fertilizer availability for plants.

Wilting Under New Rules, Competition

With a perfect allyear growing climate, affordable labor and access to temperature-controlled air freight, Kenya has all the ingredients to become one of the top flower producers in the world.

Hopes by Kenya’s flower growers to exploit the lucrative United States market and stop dependence on the European market has not borne much fruit despite the recent launch of direct flights between Nairobi and New York.

In spite of optimism and excitement after national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ) started direct flights to the US, the airline’s business strategy of focusing on passengers as opposed to cargo has dashed the hopes of the flower industry of targeting the market that has remained elusive.

This is bad news for the industry which despite being the second leading foreign exchange earner after tea, is grappling with a myriad of challenges that are threatening the country’s position as Africa’s leading producer of cut flowers.

The story of the world’s trading networks told through eight everyday products.

For more than 200 years, the heart of the global trade in cut flowers has been the Netherlands. The world’s largest global auction for flowers began, famously, in a pub. One trader turned to his peers and asked, how much?

The question was the start of the most dynamic and highly organised trading sites for flowers in the world. Now known as the Royal FloraHolland auction house at Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam, the floor of a cavernous warehouse is home to a giant game of Tetris with living flower stems bustled about on trolleys, to be bought, sold and dispatched.

As it has done for years, Royal Flora Holland still plays a critical role importing and then re-exporting 40% of flowers from all over the world. But newer players in the flower trade are making their presence felt, shifting the dynamics of production. As transport technology develops, producers in regions elsewhere, including sub-Saharan Africa, are challenging the Netherlands’ traditional hold on the industry.

Ask any coach and He will tell you that when his fate depends on competitors’ match, the situation is out of control. So, it is with Kenya’s flower sector as our fate in the flower sector is determined by others. The truth is, we are in a catch 22 situation. This is the time for Kenya to think outside the Box and redeem its flower and export sector.

Flower farms push for special zones Flower producers want the enterprises granted Special Economic Zones (SEZ) status to cushion them against runaway costs that are fast eroding competitiveness in the export markets. Kenya Flower Council chief executive Clement Tulezi said while the SEZ Act was assented to in September, 2015, and came into effect on December 15, 2015, regulations to operationalise it were yet to be gazetted.

“We deal in export-bound only products that warrants us to enjoy SEZ status. New regulations will create licensing processes and state fees applicable while enabling flower enterprises to enjoy tax benefits that come with this authorised economic operator special status,” he said. Mr Tulezi said SEZ the status will help ease challenges attributed to new punitive regulations on control of plastics and double inspection of imported fertilisers.