Where have all the flowers gone: Thorns among the roses

Kenya's flower farms supply one-third of all the cut blooms bought in Britain. They employ 40,000 people, who with their families are dependent on the industry. But now, after surviving drought and corruption, they face a new danger. Steve Bloomfield reports from Naivasha

The endless acres of greenhouses stretch out along the shores of the deep-blue waters of Lake Naivasha. Underneath white plastic panelling, workers plant and water billions of roses and carnations - all to be shipped off and sold in Europe. But all is not well in the drought-hit Rift Valley of central Kenya, where local people are praying for rain.

Land which was lush and green just a few months ago is now dusty and brown. Within the next month the "short" rains are due - a few weeks of intense rainfall that will provide Kenya's crops with a much-needed watering. Last year they did not come, throwing the entire region into crisis and provoking a food crisis that some humanitarian groups claimed put some 11 million people at risk.

More than 40,000 men and women work for less than £1 a day on Kenya's flower farms - growing, picking, grading and packing. It is here, 4,500 miles away from the UK, that one-third of all the cut flowers bought in Britain for lovers and mothersare grown. Some 31 flower farms operate in Naivasha. One eighth of Kenya's gross domestic product is provided by horticulture. The flower industry was last year poised to overtake tea and tourism as Kenya's leading foreign exchange earner.

But that isn't going to happen now. The flower farms may not have felt the full force of the drought , but they were still badly affected. Endemic corruption and rising insecurity have also damaged what was once a thriving industry. Profits have fallen by 15 per cent, the worst decline in 30 years, and 28 farms have been forced to close in the past five years. Now a bigger threat has appeared on the horizon - one which could prove the death knell for flower-growing in the former British colony and ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans.

Determined to grab a slice of this lucrative market, Ethiopia has begun to encourage major flower farms to cross the border. Lured by ten-year tax holidays, better security and little in the way of graft, five major companies have made the switch, with more planning to follow.

One of Naivasha's biggest employers, Sher Agencies - a Dutch company whose 400-hectare farm produces 600 million roses a year, more than any other farm in the world - has already opened a new farm in Ethiopia. The firm's human resources manager, Martine Kamwaro, said all companies based in Naivasha are considering making the move. "There is going to be a migration of investors to another country," he said. "It will probably happen with all of us."

If Kenya's flower industry dies out, it would have a catastrophic effect on the Naivasha and the Rift Valley. The farms do not just provide employment. Nestled in between the farms, lie houses, schools and hospitals, all built and run by the major companies and (almost) all provided free to employees and their families. Homegrown has its own 24-hour medical centre. Sher Agencies has a hospital, daycare centre and primary and secondary schools. At Sher, employees and their families receive free housing, free education and free healthcare.

But with jobs on the line, 40,000 workers - and their families - are now facing the prospect of losing everything. It is estimated that for every worker at the flower farms, seven people are dependent - creating a community of almost 300,000 who rely on the flower industry. This has, claim some, created a culture of dependence in Naivasha that could have catastrophic consequences if the exodus to Ethiopia continues.

Jane Kariuki, the headteacher at Sher Agencies' daycare centre bellows in Swahili at a gaggle of four-year-olds play-fighting on top of the climbing frame in the grassy playground. "If their parents lose their jobs, these children could become street children," she said. "Their destiny will be destroyed." Some 800 children under the age of five are educated at the daycare centre. The fees and the three meals a day are all paid for by the firm. When they are five, the children move on to the primary school where there are currently 1,700 pupils. Again, everything is paid for by Sher Agencies.

Mrs Kariuki said she feared for the future if more jobs went to Ethiopia. "When you are provided with everything you do not think about tomorrow. It is the problem with human beings. Here, everything is taken care of by the white man." It is a concern echoed next door at the hospital. Open 24 hours a day, the hospital provides free medical care to some 20,000 people connected to the company. Before it was built, patients had to use a nearby hospital with poor facilities that could not offer basic operations. What is more, they had to pay for the privilege.

Dr Judy Maye, the hospital's deputy clinical director, said the change in healthcare had been enormous. "If you take care of your employees you get better results," she said. "The private sector has finally realised that if they don't take care of their employees no one else will.

"Sher provides homes, education, healthcare, water, electricity - everything," she said. "People say Sher is their mother and their father. We end up being dependent on the flowers farms - that is the fear."

When the drought hit east Africa late last year. production at the Navaisha farms was severely affected. But the deluge which followed had an equally devastating effect. Too much rain too quickly encouraged fungal diseases which wiped out much of the crop. At Sher Agencies production fell by 30 per cent.

Corruption, as in so many areas of Kenyan life, has also played its part. The road from the flower farms, on the shore of Lake Naivasha, to Naivasha town itself is, along the better stretches, covered with pot-holes. Most of it does not even have a proper surface.

The biggest companies agreed to pay for the construction of the road. But, according to several senior officials at the flower farms, government officials blocked the move unless they received their cut. "Somebody must pocket some money somewhere," said Mr Kamwaro.

Even the relative improvement in Kenya's economy - GDP has risen by 5.8 per cent - has had a detrimental effect on the industry. Under the Lome trade agreement between the world's poorest countries (known as least developed countries), and the European Union, preferential trade status is given to those poorer nations. Kenya is on the list, meaning its exports to the EU are not subject to tariffs. However, from 2008, Kenya will no longer be considered a least developed country so will not benefit from tariff-free exports. Ethiopia, however, will. And Meles Zenawi's government is determined to make the most of it. There are huge incentives for companies willing to make the move. Firms have been offered tax holidays of up to ten years and ministers have been falling over themselves to help out.

"The transport minister turned up at our gate, without an appointment, just to ask if there was anything he could do," said Mr Kamwaro. "In Kenya, a minister or official would turn up to try and find a fault then ask for a bribe in return for not reporting it. This is my country - but this is what happens."

The current Kenyan government, headed by President Mwai Kibaki, came to power in 2002 promising to stamp out the institutional corruption that had blighted both Kenyan economy and society. But a series of scandals, most notably the so-called Anglo Leasing affair, have undermined that pledge.

Several senior government ministers have been accused of corruption on a grand scale but none has so far been charged. It was announced yesterday that four ex-ministers may face trial but their names have not been released. Many Kenyans remain sceptical that anything will be done considering that some two years have passed since President Kibaki was first informed of the graft accusations.

The Kenya Flower Council, the industry's trade association, reports that corruption is beginning to be eradicated. Jane Ngige, the organisation's chief executive played down the affect it is having on the flower industry. "We have had a culture of corruption for 24 years under the previous regime. To get rid of a culture that is embedded in a people doesn't take two or three years - it takes time. We probably need a little bit more time."

Mrs Ngige denied the threat from Ethiopia could seriously harm Naivasha. "We were concerned about Ethiopia initially but today we are not so worried," she said. "The Ethiopian government has put in a lot of incentives in terms of infrastructure and tax breaks but it will still take them time to build what we have in Kenya."

One option being explored by the major firms in Kenya is mechanisation. All flowers are currently picked by hand, but some companies have already begun trials with flower-picking machines. If they were introduced across the board it would mean serious job cuts. A machine operated by three workers is estimated to pick as many flowers as 50 human pickers.

"It is definitely an option that growers have to think about, given the competitive nature of the industry," Mrs Ngige said.

None of this is going to make Jeremiah Muyome feel any better. Wearing a long, dark blue jacket over his shirt and trousers, he walks up and down the middle of a large greenhouse filled with row upon row of red roses. In all, it holds 100,000 plants, which produce a total of 500,000 stems. The rows stretch far into the distance.

Workers, dressed in bright yellow jackets, tend to the flowers. Mr Muyome, 27, used to wear a yellow jacket like his colleagues but he was recently promoted to supervisor. "This job means a lot to me," he said. "It gives my family our daily bread."

His wife is a harvester in the company's production department. Their seven-month- old daughter is looked after in the daycare centre. The three of them live in a home next door to the farm which is provided by the company.

"I don't pay anything," he said. "Electricity, water schooling. I entirely rely on this company. If I end up without a job it would be very bad."

According to Peter Otieno, the farm's union rep, the fear of the future is very real. "This company is a good company," he said. "But people are worried when they hear about the exodus to Ethiopia. Their jobs could go at any time. With unemployment in Kenya now it will take you 10 years to get another job. A lot of people are going to suffer - parents and children."

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