East Africa’s Agriculture Sector is Blossoming. Really!

Another development ag Wednesday from our fantastic partner, Christine Freak direct from Grass Ceilings. Check out her impressive bio here.

Agriculture has been on top of the development agenda in East Africa for decades. Many organisations such as the United Nations and World Bank had focused on staple crop production to reduce hunger and improve food security. So it now seems rather peculiar that some of the major agricultural products coming out of East Africa are coffee, chocolate and… flowers? If only these were the staples!

But, whilst products like these are sure to fill a special someone’s heart, they are not exactly what comes to mind in filling the stomachs of some of the most malnourished and food insecure regions of the world.  So, why are countries such as Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya producing flowers instead of flour?

This week’s Development Agriculture article will take a snapshot look at the Floriculture industry of East Africa! We will see how the shift to producing cut flowers is a high-tech, modern, knowledge based, and economically viable form of agricultural diversification, and the impacts it has had on the agricultural sector and farmer’s livelihoods more broadly!

There is a long-standing debate about what farmers in developing countries should be producing. Some argue that farmers should focus their resources on subsistence production and staple crops. These people argue that local food security is best met if the community themselves produce the food they need. Exports are then restricted to whatever supplies are left over. Others, on the other hand, argue that farmers in developing countries should focus on producing cash crops (such as coffee or cacao) and exporting these to foreign markets. These people believe that if farmers can earn enough revenue from their exports, they can then purchase food with the greater income. Initially, it seems somewhat odd that people who lack a stable and consistent supply of food would produce luxury foods such as coffee, chocolate and flowers. But, the additional weight of this argument is that exports also bring foreign exchange earnings, which allows farmers the capacity to import machinery to enhance their productivity in the long-term, and also reach larger markets with higher value crops.

Many developing countries are also located in tropical zones, which gives them a niche (or comparative advantage perhaps) in many products. Arguments aside, it seems some of the most food secure regions of the developing world have been able to manage local production alongside exports of high-value crops such as flowers.

Prior to 1990, the major cut flower producers in the world were the Netherlands, United States, France and Germany. Only 5 years later, many developing countries had overtaken these world leaders as key exporters.  Countries across Africa (particularly, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa) and South America (Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador) budded onto world markets. Exports from Tanzania to Europe increased by 700% in volume! Exports from Kenya also increased significantly by 173%, and from Ecuador by 155%. This was largely due to favourable tropical growing conditions, and access to cheap labour (given cut flower production is very labour intensive). Growers traditionally based in the US or Europe began investing in farms in developing countries, who could produce high quality flowers at lower costs.

Countries such as Tanzania and Kenya now have a larger floriculture production capacity than many developed nations!


Snapshot of Tanzania

The cut flower industry of Tanzania began to blossom in 1986. Each year Tanzania exports 6000 tones of flowers. The main growing region is located in the mountains to the North, in the Arusha and Arumeru districts (not too far from Mt Kilimanjaro). The area is very favourable to floriculture, given low temperatures and high altitudes, which allows production year round. Another attractive part of this location is the proximity to Kenya, and two international airports to reach foreign markets. Kenyas Nairobi airport even has a dedicated terminal for flowers and vegetables!

The cut flowers (and planting materials) are cultivated in plastic greenhouses. There are now over 36,000 square meters of greenhouses located in the Arusha region. It is common for the flowers to be grown in soilless culture, including coconut peat and volcanic turfs.

One study found that a facility in the Arusha region produced 3.5million flower stems per hectare per year – 10 times higher than the production rates of most European countries. The Arusha region exports an average of 50 tones of flowers each week.  Roses contribute over 75% of this amount.


Flower Power in Kenya

Kenya is seen as a leader in the region for cut flowers, and has even been described as “the garden of Europe”. Kenya is the third largest exporter of cut flowers, accounting for 35% of all EU sales. Floriculture is also now Kenya’s second largest source of foreign exchange earnings, making it crucial for the whole economy! Floriculture employs over 500,000 people in Kenya, which means around 2 million people depend on it for their livelihoods. The main flowers produced are: roses, carnations and Alstromeria.

Flower production in Kenya is rather high-tech, with technology and scientific expertise being led by developments in the Netherlands. Some of these technologies include: drip irrigation, fertigation systems, temperature controlled green houses, pre-cooling, fertilizer recycling systems to prevent waste, artificial lighting and refrigerated facilities.

Check out these videos for a glimpse into the floriculture industry of Kenya.

And a brief snapshot of Ethiopian roses too!

Rose coloured glasses? What are the challenges?

But not everything is as rosey as it seems. There are concerns that the growth in floriculture is not environmentally sustainable, and there have been concerns raised about workers’ rights. One of the big challenges of floriculture, particularly roses, is the huge water requirements. Roses can’t go more than 24 hours without water, otherwise farmers risk having imperfections which can result in losing the entire crop. Roses need irrigating 7 times a day, so a constant water supply is essential. The soil is irrigated, rather than the plant itself, to prevent fungus outbreaks. Farms in this area ensure they have at least 2 times the water supply required, having large reservoirs, boreholes and rivers.

With the blooming floriculture industry of East Africa, farmers have seen their incomes increase, and food security, overall, has also blossomed. So next time you decide to spoil a special someone with a sweet bunch of roses, remember the gift that agriculture and floristry is to many parts of the developing world, providing jobs, incomes, food security and economic growth through a high-tech, advanced, and world leading industry – which also challenges many common perceptions of agriculture in developing countries!





One thought on “East Africa’s Agriculture Sector is Blossoming. Really!

  1. Wow, that what I want to study, I am really interested in floriculture. Do you have any idea what college or uni in Australia has advantages in teaching floriculture?

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