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No Valentine for Naivasha

February 13, 2008

Last December, when planning this time in Africa, I’d hoped to explore and photograph some of the massive flower farms I’d read about on Human Flower Project and elsewhere. Most of them are concentrated around Lake Naivasha, about 2 hours from here.

I didn’t know that 75% of cut flowers sold in the UK & more than a third sold in Europe come from Kenya, and that it’s a hotly contested business in this part of the world, with neighboring Ethiopia and Uganda vying for the lucrative market. The idea that flowers are bred and grown not only for beauty but for the longevity required to make the intercontinental plane trip is staggering and fascinating. Only tourism and tea top flowers as Kenya’s biggest business, which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars and was growing at about 126% annually (according to http://allafrica.com/stories/200802040054.html).  The industry was a steady employer of between 30,000 and 40,000 people.

All that changed drastically Jan 28, when bands of one tribe around the town of Naivasha, which had stayed calm when other parts of the Rift Valley exploded, went hunting for members of another tribe, killing as they found them, burning homes, rooting their enemies out. By the end of it, at least 30 were dead and thousands were fleeing for their lives. Newspaper reports say that thousands are sleeping in makeshift camps, at Red Cross camps, at the police station and prison, anywhere that offers a measure of protection, but that many more have lit out for the rural areas they came from. What they will do for a living once there is anyone’s guess, since they were drawn to Naivasha for its work that often came with housing, albeit lowly.

I don’t know if this makes the U.S. news as it has in the UK, which might see a short supply of St. Valentine’s day roses and carnations as its only loss. But the sudden faltering of an industry as the result of the violent bursting of old tensions, followed by the enormous physical and emotional suffering that comes from people torn by loss and too afraid to return to the lives they built is, for me, the nearly indescribable example of what is happening to Kenya as a whole. With the help of armed convoys and extraordinary business efforts, lovers might get their roses, and industry’s need will soon see new employees where others have left. But on this day when everyone is supposed to think about love, what will heal the hearts of the ones left with nowhere to go?

In case you want to read more:

Armed Escorts in Kenya for St Valentine’s Day Flowers

Violence ruins the party for Naivasha Flower Companies

Murder gangs go on the rampage in savage day of tribal bloodletting

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2008 10:29 am

    This is a very powerful post. I know about the unrest in Kenya, but not about the flowers–have no idea where cut flowers come from here in my province of Canada, other than from a few large commercial nurseries. But that’s not so much the question as is yours: who indeed will heal the hearts of those with nowhere left to go. A sobering thought, and I’m glad you’ve brought it up, as we approach another Hallmark Holiday (excuse for merchants to mindlessly promote stuff we don’t need as a way to show our love).

  2. February 13, 2008 1:10 pm

    This is so tragic – I can’t begin to imagine the desperation of the people fleeing. It’s sad that industry is being affected – people’s livelihoods gone.

    I had thought of you last night while reading a book on the cut flower trade. I was looking to see where Canada ranked as a cut-flower producer. Then I saw that Kenya was a big cut-flower producer. Later on, in my book, I read that Dutch growers look for countries with climates that can grow cut-flowers year round (Ecuador is another one). If I don’t get distracted, I’m planning to post a review today.

    Thanks for your message.

  3. craftyinfidel permalink
    February 13, 2008 2:16 pm

    Holy Cow! I had no idea. Thanks for the information. Be safe!

  4. Mary X---- permalink
    February 13, 2008 6:23 pm

    Kristy sent me your website. It is wonderful. There was something in the paper or a magazine, can’t remember which, about the flower industry in Kenya and how it is suffering. Your writing really brought it home to me. Please take care–we think of you often. Kristy says you are having an amazing time. And she’s right–Lynn, you are a wonderful writer as well as a photographer. Mary Exline

  5. andrea permalink
    February 13, 2008 7:18 pm

    airlifting out roses – i don’t know what else to say.
    if only the simple gesture of giving someone a flower could do anything to lessen such tensions…
    continue to plant your seeds my friend.

  6. February 13, 2008 9:34 pm

    If you’re looking for a good read on the flower industry in the U.S., including the airlifting of flowers from Latin American to North American markets, check out Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential. Stay safe.

  7. bloomlikeflowers permalink
    February 16, 2008 4:04 am

    Thanks everyone. And thanks, Craig, for the book recommendation. I have ordered Latin American flowers from a web site–had them FedEx’d to Crested Butte for the wedding even! Had no real idea of the scope of what I was participating in, only that it was an incredible price for Alstromeria.
    People in the UK do talk about the carbon footprint issues between airlifts and heated greenhouses (especially in Holland). One thing’s for sure, buying simple flowers is no longer a simple issue.

  8. February 19, 2008 6:47 pm

    I was sure I had left a comment here, but I didn’t.

    I have a link to this post in my from 14.02.08 – it was a book review of ‘Flower Confidential’.

    I’m having an interesting time reading more about the flower trade in Kenya, Ethiopia and S. Africa – your post was timely!

    It’s the people who are the real sufferers in what’s happening in Kenya.

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