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Kenya Violence Hurts Flower Exports for Valentine's Day

Kenyan flowers account for one-third of Europe's cut flower imports, and Kenyan growers have been working hard to keep exports up for the Valentine's Day holiday, despite ethnic violence that has paralyzed the country. VOA's Scott Bobb visited the main flower growing area around Lake Naivasha and has this report.

A young woman cuts buds from rose bushes growing in a greenhouse the size of a football field. She works in one of 16 such hothouses at the Ol' Njorowa flower farm on Lake Naivasha, 80 kilometers northwest of Nairobi.

The area lying in Kenya's fertile Rift Valley produces about 50,000 tons of flowers a year. Kenya supplies more than one-third of the fresh flowers sold in Europe which earned the country $350 million per year, its third-largest export.

After the flowers are cut they are taken to a central warehouse where they are sorted and packed for shipping.

Quality Control Officer Mary Rukwaro says the violence three weeks ago drove many colleagues from their homes and their jobs.

"We have lost a lot of workers here. We managed to work without them although we were affected," she said.

The farm's operations director, Simon Harris, says production at the farm stopped completely for several days. As a result, profits this year are expected to decline by 30 percent.

"This is the most important time of the year for us by far. Valentine's is our time, our Christmas," he explained. "And it impacted quite severely on our ability to supply the market."

He says 60 of the farm's 400 employees have not returned, including several senior managers and supervisors. Productivity has also been affected because staff are traumatized and worried about their safety.

Nearly 50 people were killed in Naivasha. Some hacked to death and others burned to death in their houses.

The attackers targeted primarily Luo people traditionally from western Kenya. The attacks followed similar violence in western Kenya against Kikuyu people traditionally from central Kenya.

In Naivasha an estimated 10,000 flower workers, or about one-fifth of the total work force, have left. An estimated 6,000 displaced remain, most of them living in camps for the displaced.

One of these camps, Kidong, lies in a dusty field near the flower farms, its dusty tents tied down in neat rows.

Camp resident Kennedy Mboya is a horticulturist at a nearby farm. He says bitterness runs deep among the displaced.

"Most of our things were stolen. Our houses were burned. Some of our people were burned inside their houses, especially women and children. They were burned because they did not have any power to run," he said.

Judith Atieno, another displaced person, works in one of the greenhouses. She is worried because her three children can no longer attend their former school and the schools in this district are full.

She says if there is no school here and there is no help then she will just go home. But if everything is OK she will stay.

The local secretary of the farm workers union, Peter Otieno, tries to help the displaced. Otieno, who also lost his home and belongings in the violence, says the disruption to the industry has reduced the union's revenues and its work on behalf of its members.

"We have been affected on both sides, on membership and on negotiations on the pending collective bargaining agreements," he said. "So we do not feel this year will be better for workers."

The head of the Kenya Flower Council, Jane Ngige, says the industry has emerged relatively unscathed despite the loss of up 20 percent of its workforce. But she says a long-term concern is the stiff competition from other flower producing countries, such as Ethiopia, Mexico, and India.

"You are looking at an industry that has been significantly shaken-up. And you have got investors who are now wondering if they must continue to produce in Kenya and it is very easy to pack your greenhouses and move," she said.

A long-term concern for displaced people like Kennedy Mboya is how to get along with the former neighbors who turned on him.

"It is very bitter and it is [going to] need a long time to forgive each other. So we just have to bear the pain," he said. "Actually we have nothing to [we can] do."

Union official Peter Otieno says the social tensions are also likely to affect the industry for some time.

"The trust that had been there is now lost and without that trust the production of these employees has been diminished. And it will take time for them to come to terms with what happened and be the normal people they had been before," he said.

Peter Otieno's Valentine's Day is lonely. He has sent his family to western Kenya for their safety and for his children to continue their education.