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Africa in Full Bloom

January 9, 2013
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
Kenya’s growing flower sector reflects the growth of African agriculture. These operations support millions of people and make a major contribution to the economy— Kenyan horticulture alone provides 33% to the GDP.  

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Kenya’s fragile farming system pushes to keep up with population

All roses are not created equal, and you should use the right criteria when choosing one, says Hamish Ker, production manager for Oserian, a flower company in Naivasha, Kenya. Ker should know—he has spent his life smelling the roses. He grew up on a Kenyan flower farm and is now a key decision maker for rose hybrids on more than 500 acres at Oserian, which means "place of peace" in the tribal Masai language. The farm is one of the world’s largest flower operations and includes a 20,000-acre wildlife sanctuary.

"Flowers serve emotions," says Ker, as he plucks his favorite rose, the A1, which is white with a tinge of green. "When making a flower purchase for a dear one, whether in love or death, you don’t compromise."

Ker can wax poetic about roses, but he is serious about the potential of agriculture to improve the economy of his native Kenya. Flower production, the country’s fastest growing industry, has overtaken coffee exports and provides 33% of gross domestic product (GDP). Growers have developed a vertically integrated business that delivers wrapped bunches to European markets within a day of cutting.

"When I hold a rose in my hand, I hold food," Ker says, noting that flower operations support more than half a million people in Kenya. Oserian employs 4,800 and provides housing, medical care and a school. This is significant in a country where the population is increasing at an annual rate of 2.6%, which translates to about 1 million children born each year.

Farming on the Edge. Yet the overall agricultural system here is fragile. Production can’t keep up with population growth, leaving 25% of Kenyans, about 10 million people, without three decent meals a day. It is an open secret in Africa that the biggest challenge in farming is market access, but the government doesn’t want to step in.

The problem of land availability is rising due to sprawling urban areas, and highly uneven distribution of productive land means the majority of farmers are small-scale operators. This limits the scope of food production. Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns create havoc, with frequent cases of drought and flooding.

Ker refuses to focus on the negative, instead noting that Africa has made more progress in the last decade than it has in the last century. He credits a new constitution, which provides democratic processes, improves land rights for farmers and encourages entrepreneurism. "As a Kenyan, I feel proud we are moving forward," he says.

Huge Potential, Challenges. Farmers across Africa are responding to global food prices and local
demand from growing cities. Kenya’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture, with the ag sector directly contributing 26% of GDP and another 25% indirectly. Agriculture employs more than 40% of the total population.

Agricultural growth rates in Africa are exceeding the rest of the world, according to United Nations reports. At a governmental level, there has been a remarkable shift in prioritization of ag development. Under the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security, African countries have committed to allocating at least 10% of their national budgets to agriculture.

Kenya has seen tremendous improvement in ag research, Extension, and crop and animal husbandry, notes Rien Geuze, agribusiness adviser for Agriterra, an agency that offers farmer-to-farmer advice and financial support in developing countries. However, a constant problem for both the government and the private sector has been agricultural marketing.

"The problems facing many farmers in Kenya are not in the field, they are postharvest," Geuze says. Hardworking farmers have their hopes dashed by exploitative pricing mechanisms and a lack of market access and market information that seems to favor the middleman.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - January 2013

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