The Messy Side of Blooming Love: Kenya?s Flowering Business

The Messy Side of Blooming Love: Kenya?s Flowering Business

Meera Subramanian: On Mother’s Day, Consider Kenya?s Flowering Business

Sunday is Mother?s Day, and?after calling my mom to tell her how great she is?I?ll be boarding a plane bound for Kenya. Meanwhile, all week long, planes have been leaving Nairobi, laden with sweet-smelling bouquets bound for mothers all over the world.

Europe?s equivalent of the New World?s Colombia, Kenya provides the other side of the pond with a third of its cut flowers?88 million tons of blooming glory each year, worth some $264 million. The vast majority of them are produced at one location at Lake Naivasha, the largest freshwater lake in the Great Rift Valley. I spent weeks on the shores of the lake last year, where zebras and leopards still roam, and where I?ll soon be returning. The scene there is not so?sorry?rosy.

In the so-called Happy Valley, the acacia forest that once ringed the lake is broken in places by swaths of industrial floriculture greenhouses, unending bows of plastic leaping up the hillside in an ordered fashion. Those greenhouses need laborers, and Kenyans need jobs. The industry has given rise to unplanned shantytowns, a random amalgamation of shacks constructed to house the flower farm workers not living in company towns, as well as all the vendors that are needed to support human communities, from butchers to bicycle repairmen.

In the last three decades, the population in the Valley has climbed from 5,000 to half a million. These people and the flower companies need water, which Lake Naivasha continues to offer as its lake-level drops. Both people and companies also produce waste?some organic, some not. Last year, while teaching an environmental journalism course for St. Lawrence University undergrads, we visited two flower farms, Homegrown Kenya Ltd. and Oserian, to see their wetlands water treatment systems. Homegrown Kenya produces both flowers and vegetables. Oserian is one of the largest flower farm companies in Kenya, and a major player in the Naivasha region. Representatives from Oserian gave us a slick PowerPoint presentation about their company?s ethics, mission, and policies.

Both sites have a series of settling ponds that filter water from the company kitchens and laundries, but not the water coming from the flower production area. It was impressive, visually?opaque algae muck transformed into crystal water. But where is the rest of the water that makes it back to Lake Naivasha, untreated and unfiltered? And what, exactly, does it contain? What might be in the bodies of the fish that are caught and eaten from the lake? I have spoken with environmental managers of the flower farms, local game ranchers, and biologists that are testing the fish eagles and cormorants that live off the lake, and no one can say. Both companies claim to avoid WHO Class I pesticides, listed as extremely hazardous. Oserian opts for Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) instead. What chemicals the company is using to produce a million stems of cut flowers each day, though, Oserian refuses to reveal.

We would never pollute the lake water, the companies claim, for we depend upon it. But one by one, they have pulled their unmetered pumps from the shores of the lake, whose water has become so polluted that they have to filter it before using it on their plants, and quietly drilled new wells to get clean water. Lake Naivasha, an internationally recognized Ramsar site under the Convention on Wetlands, becomes more of a dumping ground with each passing year.

Naivasha?s flower business also raises interesting questions about fair-trade certification and what it really means. Oserian is a fair-trade certified grower, proud to pay its full-time workers 7,900 shillings per month (about $100). Some workers also receive housing, school for their children, and health care, but a hundred dollars is still not much money for a month?s labor, and Kenya is not a cheap place to live. There were rumors of many ?temporary? workers ineligible for benefits who still worked long hours throughout the year.

In addition to its fair-trade designation, Oserian supports a wildlife reserve area nearby. But the local environmental impact of flower farming is of greater concern.

Sarah Higgins, a local flower grower and resident, has her workers use protective gear to shield them from chemicals in the environment. Higgins serves as a council member of the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association, which, in 1995, produced a Management Plan for Lake Naivasha by consensus with numerous local stakeholders. Immediately, flower farms placed an injunction on the plan, which still languishes. In 2009, after years of drought, the lake waters turned red with an algae bloom. The drought was followed by flooding, which flushed so much organic material into the lake that it choked the oxygen from the waters and sent dead fish floating to the surface.

The Lake Naivasha region is a complicated area, bringing together nearly every issue that plagues the East-African nations: population growth, HIV/AIDS, labor, water, wildlife, tourism, deforestation, tribal differences, land use, energy. It was the site of excessive post-election violence in 2007, with men chopping machetes through the torsos of neighbors. Uphill from the farms, massive geothermal plants sprout like steaming volcanoes as part of a plan to bring green energy to Kenya, another endeavor that requires abundant water. Yet the lake can only give so much.

Meanwhile, tourists, myself included, flock here with cameras that are worth more than a local?s annual wages, visiting private game reserves and national parks to experience the places where wild creatures still roam. Hippos emerge from the lake?s waters at sundown to munch on the lush tropical lawns of resorts.

A couple of years ago, the UK Minister for International Development encouraged Britons to purchase Kenyan flowers, arguing that the ecological impact of flying in roses from 4,000 miles away that are grown in an equatorial climate was less than buying locally cultivated carnations from northern hothouses. With 10,000 tons of roses purchased on that other flowery holiday in February, the decision of where to buy is not insignificant. Like many environmental choices we face today, it?s a matter of picking your poison. If your beloved mama should threaten to disown you if flowers don?t show up, fair-trade certified is a good, if not perfect, place to start. Here are a few options.

But I didn?t buy flowers for my mom for Sunday, even the ?Wishful World Fair Trade Rose Bouquet? (twelve stems, vase included, $49.99); she didn?t get me a birthday card in March, either. Yet somehow we still manage to convey our love to each other. Perhaps there are ways to think outside of the vase.