It is almost a relief at Lake Flowers, a small farm in Naivasha, Kenya’s horticultural heartland, that the biggest problem they have at the moment is insect pests. Seven months after violent ethnic clashes brought the Rift Valley town to a standstill, many of the flower farms are having to deal with tiny mites that flourished in the conflict when fumigation labourers fled. “I’m still fighting spider mites and powdery mildew,” says Mahmud Abdullah, who runs Lake Flowers.

In late January, the epicentre of the violence moved down the Rift Valley into Naivasha. Ethnic militias, alleged to have been sponsored by senior members of Mwai Kibaki’s government, visited the town one Sunday morning. Going door-to-door, the gangs first forcibly recruited members of the president’s Kikuyu community and used them to identify and hunt down opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Luo community in reprisal attacks for violence against the Kikuyu in other parts of the country. By the end of it, scores were dead and many more injured.

For the $1bn-a-year Kenyan flower export industry, 80 per cent of which is located in Naivasha, the attacks were particularly disruptive. For the past two decades, the flower farms have been a magnet for migrant workers, many of whom came from western Kenya and Nyanza, where the Luo originate. For every eight people arriving on the bus from Nyanza, only one will be hired on a farm. The rest had found a place in the sprawling townships, joining Kikuyu evicted from other parts of the Rift Valley during other bouts of ethnic clashes in the 1990s. It was these townships that had been targeted. Security at the larger farms ensured that the raiders did not attack them.

For smaller operators such as Mr Abdulla, a Kenyan-born Canadian of Indian extraction who has been growing flowers since the mid-1990s, the January violence threatened to close his operation. His workers live in Kihoto, a settlement close to his four-hectare farm.

“My secretary was packing the flowers. My security guard was driving the tractor. And different people from different communities were driving the trucks, depending on which part of the highway they were on.”

January and early February are the busiest months of the year in the flower business as companies prepare Valentine’s Day orders for Europe. Kenya is the biggest flower exporter to Europe, controlling 33 per cent of the European flower market. But competition, increasingly from other east African countries as well as Israel and South America, is stiff. “We refused to admit to the world that there was a problem in Naivasha,” says Mr Abdulla. “We said that everything was OK, that our shipments were being escorted by the police. It was the smartest thing we could do. Contracts could have been cancelled.” Miraculously, the industry met its Valentine’s Day deadlines.

The industry has since moved on. Exports this year are expected to be up 20 per cent on 2007, though many farms are worried at the impact of the global financial crisis on consumer demand. There are other worries. Electricity costs have doubled over the past few months. Richer farms are trying to defray the costs by exploring other electricity sources, including geothermal and solar power. For smaller growers, it has meant a cut in their margins.

Of greater concern is the level of water abstraction from Lake Naivasha, the main water source, which forced the government to introduce a long-overdue fee-paying metered-water system. A recent report classified Lake Naivasha as an endangered lake. Similarly, deforestation in the lake’s catchment areas is forcing the government, flower farmers and environmentalists to think more deeply about the lake’s future.

“We want the users of the lake, especially the horticultural industry, to begin paying for environmental services,” says Andrew ole Koisamoi, co-ordinator at the Centre for Pastoralist Development, an environmental pressure group.

In the past, the industry would have ignored such concerns. Many government bigwigs also own flower farms, a factor that has insulated it from local political pressures. But things may be changing. “Between 1995 and 2005, the industry went from adolescence to adulthood,” says Mr Abdulla. Flower farms had grown rich on Lake Naivasha. “If you didn’t make at least 20 per cent return in two years, you were an idiot.

“The party days are over,” he says. “I think the growers suddenly realised they needed to protect the environment to protect themselves.”

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