When you receive your Valentine’s bouquet this year, will you wonder where it came from? Probably not, but it’s possible your flowers are better travelled than you. Sitting just below the horn of Africa, Kenya is the largest exporter of flowers to the European Union, meaning your pretty petals may have crossed equators and oceans to arrive at your door. Kiki Deere visited an independent flower farm in Kenya to find out what it’s like to be an African rose.
A young woman gingerly places a dozen white roses in yellow plastic buckets. Behind her, a man walks the rose beds, painstakingly removing dead heads from each plant. The flowers’ large heads have opened beautifully, emanating a strong fruity smell that fills the greenhouse. I am in Nanyuki, a small market town 195km north of Nairobi.
With ten hours of sunshine a day and 800mm of annual rainfall, the market town of Nanyuki has the perfect conditions for growing flowers. Thanks to the area’s cool climate – Nanyuki is right on the equator at 1900m above sea level – it has become a magnet for expats after an alternative base to the country’s chaotic capital.
Large European-style country homes are dotted throughout the verdant countryside surrounding the town and a smattering of restaurants have opened to cater for the growing expat community. A busy matatu platform serves as the town’s hub, where Kenyans travelling north and south gather among a gaggle of hawkers, and life goes on uninterrupted, without much of the country’s tourist trade passing through at all.
Sprinkled around Nanyuki are dozens of flower farms, vital to the livelihood of many living in the area. I am at Tambuzi, a flower farm south of the town where, unlike the mass-produced varieties, the roses here are big-headed and full of scent.
Scent causes flowers to age more quickly, explains owner Tim Hobbs, so most producers grow non-scented roses so they’ll have a longer lifespan. Tambuzi aims to grow “real” flowers with strong scent and a distinct shape, with a “just-picked-them-from-your-garden” look.
British expats Tim and Maggie Hobbs bought the 64-hectare farm in 1996 and developed it into the country’s only supplier of traditional garden scented roses.
Sitting on the patio overlooking the farm, cup of tea in hand, I look around and feel I could be in the heart of the British countryside: a leafy garden stretches out in front of me, with a calm river meandering among the trees.
Rose breeding and production is a complex business: “it’s like horse breeding,” says Tim. “Looks, scents, shapes and disease resistance must all be taken into consideration.”
We stop occasionally to smell the roses. Each has a different scent: citrus, vanilla, honey, fruits. A bright pink rose, a Greffe de Vie, smells of grapefruit.
“Our knowledge of roses is quickly developing. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated, ‘rose snobs’ effectively, just as over the years we have become wine snobs, knowing our Malbecs from our Cabernets,” Maggie believes.
From the greenhouses we move on to the grading shed, where employees carefully package the roses before placing them in the cold store. They’re stored here before being transported to Nairobi in refrigerated trucks, then it’s on to their final destination from there, usually by air.
As I leave the farm, driving along a dirt track towards the main road that leads into Nanyuki, I see men and women walking home from work. Around 80% of the staff at Tambuzi come from within a two-mile radius of the farm, with most walking to work from their own homes. Consequently, money is reinvested locally, directly benefitting the community and local economy, making their flowers a fair trade.
For dinner, I head to Nanyuki’s best restaurant: Soames, where vases brimming with colourful roses decorate the tables, a gentle reminder that Nanyuki’s flower industry is flourishing more than ever.