The mother of all roses

The flowers you gave your mum today probably came from Kenya. At what cost?
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As dawn broke over Kenya's Lake Naivasha, thousands of men and women trudged through a dusty township before filing into vast greenhouses. Here the hours are long and pesticides ever-present. Last week was tougher than most.

The flower farmers were putting in long shifts in the sweltering heat to ensure Britain had a happy Mother's Day. They have also made flowers a cornerstone of the Kenyan economy. But serious concerns are being asked over working conditions and environmental impact.

"It's total exploitation. Most of the workers are women, mostly divorcees and single mothers, and they have to feed their families," one leading human rights activist said. Some work 18-hour days for £25 a month with no protection from pesticides.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission has also claimed that women are subjected to sexual harassment by supervisors and that 90 per cent of workers are not members of a union.

Yet Britain spends more than £1.5bn a year on cut flowers, and 25 per cent of them - mainly roses - come from Kenya.

Proponents of the trade argue conditions and regulation have improved substantially in recent years.But the environmental impact still casts a long shadow. As East Africa suffers from a prolonged drought, 11.5 million people face starvation, as the flower industry drains lakes such as Naivasha.


1/ By Lake Naivasha, the Mother's Day flower starts life as a cutting. After eight days, new growth appears. An army of workers keep a close eye on developments.

2/ Fungicides and pesticides are used to keep the young plant free of disease. Water is diverted from the lake. Within six months, the plant is flowering.

3/ The cut flowers are packaged into a set of 25, then loaded on to a lorry and driven to Jomo Kenyatta airport, where maize is arriving for famine victims.

4/ Safely aboard a transport aircraft, our flower heads for London. Every year 33,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted by flower flights from Kenya.

5/ The rose arrives at Gatwick airport. At a nearby distribution centre, the last of 17 quality-control checks takes place. It is then swiftly sent on to a florist, where it is arranged in a Mother's Day bouquet, then bought for a British mum.


Flowers carrying the Fairtrade logo first went on sale two years ago and are now widely available in Britain. Most supermarket chains have Fairtrade bouquets on offer. Many come from fairly large-scale producers in Africa or Latin America, but they do offer guarantees with regards to the workers' pay and conditions.

Some anti-globalisation campaigners claim that to be truly ethical, flowers must be locally sourced, as transporting them over vast distances is ecologically damaging. Some small florists and farmers' markets will guarantee their flowers are local and organically produced. Or to source organic flowers online, go to or

Fairtrade does not mean organic and does little to stop the use of pesticides. But the Fairtrade Foundation argues that flowers are important to the economies of many poor countries: "The UK already imports about 15 per cent of all Kenya's flower exports, which is worth an estimated £25m a year to Kenyan farmers. The flowers in the Fairtrade scheme ensure that the workers are getting a better deal."