NAIVASHA, KENYA - Kenya's cut-flower industry has blossomed since the 1980s, and now holds the biggest market share for exports to Europe. Kenya's flower producers are hoping direct flights set to open between Nairobi and New York City could help them put down roots in a new market — the United States.
On the cutting floor of a factory in Naivasha, about a hundred workers dressed in red smocks stand at sorting tables, some with blades at the ready. The remnants of their work lay scattered about on the gray cement floor.
Naivasha is Kenya's floriculture heartland and workers at Van den Berg Kenya are trimming, packing and refrigerating bundles of roses.
With Valentine's Day just around the corner, this is the busiest time of year for flower growers in Kenya — the world's fourth-largest exporter of cut flowers, with most of the exports going to Europe, Australia and Japan.
"We saw good growth of up to about 10 percent up to the year 2008," said Jane Ngige, the outgoing CEO of Kenya Flower Council, which represents 115 of about 150 registered growers. "And, since then, it's stabilizing at about 2 percent."
Kenya's cut-flower industry may be set to grow once again with direct flights opening in October to the United States.
Kenya's flower growers have been anticipating the direct flights for a few years now, according to Ngige.
"And what we're looking at is an opportunity to diversify our markets to the American market. And, we're also looking — not to compete with the South Americans, who are the main producers or the main suppliers of flowers for North America — but look at complimenting the product. Because, our products are very different," Ngige said.
Kenyan roses have a smaller head-size than the Columbian flowers that dominate the U.S. market, say growers in Naivasha, but Kenya's varietals and low production costs could give it an edge.
While a small fraction of Kenya's flowers currently end up in the U.S., the air freight stopover in Europe is a costly barrier to greater market access.
The managing director of Flamingo Horticulture Kenya, Jonathan Ralling, agrees that direct flights are a good opportunity — if there is enough cargo space.
"I think it will depend on how much freight is available, in terms of what can leave the country, and also of course how competitive Kenya can be against the South American exporters, which are very, very strong in terms of the U.S.," Ralling said.
There are 100,000 workers directly employed in Kenya's flower industry, but Kenya Flower Council says indirect services and products account for another 400,000 jobs, providing livelihoods for around two million people.
The hope is that, with better access to the U.S. consumer market, Kenya's flower industry — and the number of people it supports — can only grow.