Saturday, 24 October 2009

The ugly reality of the flower trade in Kenya

Today we travelled the short distance from Nakuru town to Lake Navaisha – Henry’s family home. As we made our way, turning off the main highway into Navaisha town and on towards Fishman’s Camp on the edge of the lake, things began to change. Roads that, up until now, were potholed and treacherous, transformed into roads of smooth Tarmac, speed bumps that usually appear out of nowhere were clearly marked, there were barriers on the edge of the road, road signs, even a Barclay’s ATM made an appearance in one of the tiny local townships. The houses here were more uniform, each baring the ugly appendage of a tall TV aerial. We even passed a 24-hour hospital.


Soon, all became clear. Massive greenhouses, half a kilometer in length appeared on each side of the road. Lined up next to each other they stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Each flower farm was surrounded by high walls and the usual row of bougainvilleas. At their entrances, people streamed in and out.


This is the true reality of our flowers back home. Every time we buy a bouquet, the likelihood is that some – if not all – of the flowers will come from these ugly blots on the Kenyan horizon. Picked today, the flowers will appear on supermarket and florists’ shelves first thing tomorrow morning or the day after at a corner store in Australia.


Henry has seen the lucrative flower business expand exponentially as he grew up here. He is all too aware of the power of these foreign companies.


Each flower farm employs 6,000 plus people and there are hundreds of them bordering Lake Naivasha. In a country where unemployment is rife, these flower farms offer the local population the little security they strive for. The flower farms also manage the roads, ensuring that the truckloads of valuable flowers reach the airport undamaged and on schedule. Those workers who make it up the hierarchical echelons are given a small house in which to live. In addition, they have the money they need to own their own television – a rare and sought after luxury in much of Africa. I imagine they also have access to 24-hour health care – another valuable resource to which few people in Africa have access.


Yet, as Henry explains, there’s a darker side to the flower farm story. The flower farms are based next to Lake Navaisha – deemed one of the most beautiful lakes in Kenya – because they need water for the flowers. Water in Kenya is hard to come by so setting up shop next to a lake means the farms can have access to as much water as they want.


Each flower farm uses thousands of litres a day and there are hundreds of flower farms draining water from the lake. The result: Lake Navaisha is shrinking. At Fisherman’s Camp a walkway has been built to the edge of the lake because the camp is no longer at the water’s edge.


Wildlife is abundant here: hippos, crocs, flamingoes all make use of the lake. Local people use the lake for drinking water, for cleaning and for fishing. But this vital source of water is shrinking before their eyes. Worse, it is becoming toxic. Each of the flower farms uses pesticides, insecticides and fertilizer to grow beautiful, healthy flowers that will survive transportation to Europe and Australasia. Each day these chemicals leech into the lake. When one of our group asked Henry whether they could swim in the lake, he looked downcast and said: ‘there are flower farms round the lake. If you go swimming my friend, you won’t come back the same.’


Like much of Africa, the Kenyan government’s hands are tied. It wants employment for its people and thus it seeks external investment and the influence of foreign companies. But, at the same time, it can all but stand aside and watch whilst its country’s natural resources are exploited, potentially at the risk of the health and well-being of those same people for whom it seeks employment. It is an ugly side to Africa that locals like Henry are all too aware of but are powerless to prevent.





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