Cut flower trade flower business articles How the global industry is transforming

In the UK, 80% of cut flowers come via the Netherlands, according to the British Florist Association, although a significant proportion originate in Kenya. Some Kenyan flowers also come straight to the UK on direct flights from Nairobi, where entire terminals at certain airports are dedicated to flights exporting blooms.
“In recent years the rapid development of the flower industry in east Africa has driven domestic economic growth, increased investment and provided job opportunities,” says Anna Barker, flowers supply chain and programmes manager at the Fairtrade Foundation. “But many of the people suffer low wages and poor working conditions.
Keeping up with the world’s demand for flowers involves an intricate and delicately balanced supply chain of workers, farmers, wholesalers, airlines, cargo ships, traders, florists and supermarkets. Getting something as delicate as a bunch of flowers from one continent to another without them being crushed or wilting is a daunting technological feat.
But there are still many challenges ahead. One is the industry’s reputation for poor working conditions, including low pay . But in recent years, conditions have vastly improved for workers in many countries, the Fairtrade Foundation says. Another is the growing concern of climate change, with farms like Tambuzi trying to find better ways to use dwindling and less predictable water resources .
Tambuzi harvests throughout the year, with one truckload of flowers leaving the site every day, although at peak times – Mothers’ Day, Valentine’s Day and International Women’s Day – this can double. From harvest to the end customer in the UK, the process takes three to four days, says Shikuku.
“Every client will say they just want it to look perfect. It’s about impact, fragrance, abundance and perfection,” says Lycett.
“We have grown from 20 people growing roses outdoors, to over 500 people on three sites, growing under plastic greenhouses,” says Hobbs.
For this reason, roses grown in Kenya and sold in Europe produce 5.5 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than those raised in the Netherlands, even taking into account air transport, according to research commissioned by the Fairtrade Foundation.
Women account for 55% of staff at Tambuzi, says Kelvin Ngari, partnerships officer at the farm. Working with the Fairtrade Foundation, the farm is actively promoting more women to leadership roles.
The question was the start of the most dynamic and highly organised trading sites for flowers in the world. Now known as the Royal FloraHolland auction house at Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam, the floor of a cavernous warehouse is home to a giant game of Tetris with living flower stems bustled about on trolleys, to be bought, sold and dispatched.
The farm is the biggest employer within a 30km radius and the business supports more than 3,000 people. As a certified Fairtrade farm, 10% of the sale price goes back to the workers.
Time is critical: for every extra day spent travelling flowers lose 15% of their value. Vase life – the length of time flowers stay fresh after reaching the customer – is then usually 12-15 days, Mamias says.
Lycett is known for his dream-like creations and was the florist for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. He has created flower arrangements for Hampton Court Palace, the Royal Opera House, St Paul’s Cathedral and Kensington Palace.
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The UK market for Fairtrade flowers is worth around £21 million – about 2% of the country’s overall flower and plant market, according to UK government statistics. Globally, the market is growing, the Fairtrade Foundation says: 829 million Fairtrade flower stems were sold in 15 countries in 2016, up 5% on the previous year, and this increased to 834 million in 2017.
Specialist florists, on the other hand, often buy from wholesalers or go to New Covent Garden Flower Market in London, which receives its flowers mostly via the Netherlands. One of the most specialised and highly sought-after florists in the business is Simon Lycett, based in south London.
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Roses are chosen from a breeder and trialled on the farm. “We look at whether they have the scent we love, the number of petals, their tolerance to pests and disease, their colour, and yield,” says Shikuku.
About 10% of the roses he buys come from Kenya, including the David Austin variety in which Tambuzi specialises. The roses from Kenya are “large, multi-petalled and voluptuous”, says Lycett. “The fragrance is extraordinary. If a client wants to be taken back to their granny’s garden, they are immediately transported by the scent.”
The scale of the global market for cut flowers is large, and increasing . In the UK alone, the market for cut flowers and ornamental plants was worth £1.3 billion in 2018 , according to government statistics. Around 90% of these flowers are imported – the vast majority still coming via the Netherlands. In 2015, the global trade in flowers was worth around €15bn , with stems shuttled between continents with breath-taking speed.
The journey from field to consumer is a long and complex one for something as delicate as a cut flower. For a bloom to maintain its value, it must cover these thousands of miles remaining intact and blemish-free. Over the years, the technological solutions to keep flowers fresh and perfect looking have been honed to a fine art. The next big step will be finding equally robust social and environmental solutions to make sure the trade is truly fair and sustainable.
Cut flowers have to be transported quickly using a “cold-chain” – a series of refrigerated facilities on farms, lorries, planes, and boats – which put the flowers into a dormant state, so they stay fresh. This allows a rapid transfer from farm to shop within 24-48 hours, if going by plane, says Sylvie Mamias, secretary general of Union Fleurs, the international flower trade association.
For more than 200 years, the heart of the global trade in cut flowers has been the Netherlands. The world’s largest global auction for flowers began, famously, in a pub. One trader turned to his peers and asked, how much?
The biggest buyers of cut flowers are the EU and the US, but the biggest growers and exporters are the Netherlands, Ecuador, Colombia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Roses, carnations and chrysanthemums are the most popular blooms.
Flying flowers thousands of miles undoubtedly uses more energy than transporting them shorter distances, but being on the equator means flower farms themselves can be less energy intensive. “You don’t need to heat your greenhouses, you have more sun exposure – energy usage would be much less than growing flowers in Europe,” says Union Fleurs’ Sylvie Mamias.
“I decided to join a Fairtrade farm because I wanted to educate my children better,” she says. “My first-born is a primary school teacher and the second studied business commerce. Tambuzi helped me pay for their university education.”
The world’s trading routes have been crafted over centuries and yet remain in a constant state of flux.
“We’ve seen women rise up from harvesters to managers,” flower business articles says Ngari. “Women like Mary are challenging the status quo – to educate her children to such a high level has not been seen in her village before.”
After eight weeks, workers “bend” the rose stems so shoots start to sprout. The weaker stems are pinched off, leaving only the strongest. At 20 weeks they are harvested by hand, by 67 workers, all of whom are women. They cut the stems and put them into a solution of nutrients, tricking the flower into thinking it’s still attached, so it continues to grow.
At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, world demand for flowers has become so high that it has a dedicated flower terminal.
As team leader, Wanjiru Karanja helps train her co-workers in how to harvest, weed and feed the plants. She enjoys her job, but says weeding is hard work.
The story of the world’s trading networks told through eight everyday products.
“The packing house smells amazing and so do our greenhouses,” says Christine Shikuku, the farm’s HR and environment manager. “When I’m stressed in the office, I just walk into the greenhouses – it’s so therapeutic. I don’t have a favourite flower – they are all lovely.”
The stems are quickly transferred to a cold store and cooled to 4C before being graded, sorted into bunches in the packing house, and returned to the cold store. Finally, they are transported in a refrigerated lorry to Nairobi’s airport.
“When we choose a bunch of Fairtrade flowers in the UK, the workers behind them are benefiting from safe working conditions and families are able to send their children to school and access healthcare.”
However, this was only about 20-30% of the 3.8billion flowers grown by Fairtrade workers in 2016 – the rest went to the non-Fairtrade market because demand is not yet big enough, meaning workers did not receive additional money for those flowers. For more workers to benefit from the Fairtrade premium, sales would need to increase through a combination of consumer demand and more businesses sourcing Fairtrade flowers.
Kenya is particularly important as a source of roses – the country supplies one third of all roses sold in the EU, according to Union Fleurs. Cut flowers are now Kenya’s second largest export after tea, contributing around 1% of the country’s GDP. They are also one of the country’s largest source of employment, with .
Tambuzi’s flowers travel 180km by road to the airport. A Boeing 747 can carry 90 tonnes of flowers. In a slow week, about 30 flights loaded with passengers and a hold full of flowers will leave the airport. But in the run-up to Valentine’s Day this figure may rise to 100.
This means the supply chain is often shorter for flowers reaching the UK, because supermarkets tend to buy direct from suppliers, cutting out the middle-men and reducing costs. Sometimes they might get a wholesaler in the UK to put their bouquets together, mixing flowers from all over the world.
As it has done for years, Royal FloraHolland still plays a critical role importing and then re-exporting 40% of flowers from all over the world. But newer players in the flower trade are making their presence felt, shifting the dynamics of production. As transport technology develops, producers in regions elsewhere, including sub-Saharan Africa, are challenging the Netherlands’ traditional hold on the industry.
One of the reasons behind the increase in flower exports in Africa dates from the 1970s, says Mamias, when an oil crisis increased the cost  of heating greenhouses in northern countries. As a result, production moved south where flowers could be grown with little energy input all year round. For Europe, this meant seeing more flowers imported from Israel and Morocco, and later east Africa, while US buyers developed trade with Latin America.
But despite a higher wage, it is an arrangement that requires endurance. Wanjiru Karanja lives 6km away and walks two hours to the farm, six days a week. She starts work at 7.30am, getting up at 5am to make breakfast for her family.
Tambuzi grows 80 flower varieties, but specialises in David Austin scented roses. It also grows summer flowers gypsophila and ammi, and “fillers” for bouquets, such as rosemary, mint and lavender.
As demand for Kenyan flowers has grown, so has Tambuzi, says the farm’s owner, Maggie Hobbs, who took on the business two decades ago.
In the commercial greenhouses, workers monitor the soil pH and organic matter, drain the land, weed and feed the roses. Drip-irrigation transports water directly to each plant, minimising waste. To protect the plants from pests and disease, the flowers are sprayed and predatory mites are released to eat insects such as red spider mites and thrips, which feed on and damage the plants. Sticky traps are also set to catch pests such as whitefly.

These new producers had three things in common: areas of high altitude with cool nights, which many flowers benefit from, proximity to the equator for maximum hours of sunlight, and cheaper labour. The change also meant an end to seasonal production and the beginning of a 365-day-a-year international competitive trade.
The Fairtrade flower premium generates about £6 million for Kenyan flower workers and their communities a year, according to the Fairtrade Foundation. Workers collectively decide how to spend the money – this might go directly to them and their families, or to community services such as education and housing. The premiums can also go towards dedicated medical services to provide much-needed rural healthcare facilities. Some farms go further, and provide hospital services for free for workers and their families, and subsidised care for the rest of the local population.
To help deal with this, the farm harvests rainwater, has installed solar panels, and moved some of its production indoors so it can better control the growing environment.
For developing countries like Kenya, the cut flower industry has brought much-needed employment and opportunity, and it is an increasingly important part of their economic development. In Kenya, flower exports generate income for around 4% of the population, while in South America the trade is a major source of employment in Colombia and Ecuador.
Four countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Ecuador and Tanzania – account for 98% of certified Fairtrade flower production. Kenya makes up the greatest proportion, with 39 of the world’s 67 certified Fairtrade flower organisations. These cover around 30,500 people – about 30% of all flower workers in the country.
Graphics sources: Rabobank, Observatory of Economic Complexity
The farm has brought steady employment to an area with few job opportunities. For 50-year-old Mary Wanjiru Karanja, it offered a welcome change in career. Wanjiru Karanja has been working at Tambuzi for five years and has risen from picker to team leader, helping to manage 64 people. She used to run her own tailoring and dressmaking business, but moved to Tambuzi because the pay was better.
Despite Tambuzi’s careful management, the farm is facing growing challenges. Climate change is making it increasingly difficult to plan farming activities, says Shikuku. “Last year we had floods I have never seen in my lifetime. Then, when there is drought, it’s extreme – it is worsening every year.”
Cut flower trade flower business articles How the global industry is transformingCut flower trade flower business articles How the global industry is transforming
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A typical wedding that Lycett works on uses 20,000 roses, but he buys hundreds of different types of flowers, including hydrangeas, peonies and orchids.
Tambuzi Flower Farm in Kenya grows almost 8 million flowers a year across three sites totalling 22 hectares. Located in the rainy foothills of Mount Kenya, around 180km north of Nairobi, at 1,800m above sea level, it exports to 60 countries worldwide, including the UK, Holland, flower design articles