Flower farms in Naivasha, Kenya – not all smelling of roses

We spent the day in Naivasha surrounded by roses. Sadly though, it hasn’t been particularly sweet-smelling of late in the town.

Naivasha is about two hours west of Nairobi and home to a large freshwater lake, and possibly the largest flower industry in the region or world. Flower firms arrived in Naivasha in the late 1980s, attracted by the water, and since then have grown and flourished. The scenic landscape of the lake, set in the plains of the Rift Valley, is now peppered with huge white strips of nylon polytunnels which house the too perfect roses which are cut, packed and even priced before being freighted to stores like M&S and Tesco, etc. for us to buy the next day.

We visited Naivasha as part of our research into the implications of environmental issues for peace in Kenya, which we are carrying out for International Alert’s new initiative, the ‘Peace Audit’.

On the way our driver was telling us the kind of stories we’ve heard a lot of – how the terrible farms are capturing all the water from the lake and preventing small farmers and pastoralists from accessing it, and also polluting the water with their harmful chemicals and pesticides. But by the end of the day, having seen the process (including the thornier bits), I left thinking that actually I will probably carry on buying Kenyan roses, because for the people we spoke to, the livelihoods provided by the farms are the biggest contributor to their resilience.

For all their sins, it seems these farms provide more benefits than people in Naivasha would have without them. Whilst wages are low, the majority of larger farms adhere to pretty exacting social and ecological standards required by their supermarket clients, especially if fair trade. This means that staff undergo rigorous training in health and safety, have serious safety protocols in place and will often have health facilities, subsidised meals, crèches and childcare. As part of their corporate social responsibility schemes, many farms also support primary and secondary schools, including in the informal settlements where their staff may live. Looking around town, it was certainly evident that the flower firms were supporting more basic services than the government was. It was interesting to see private companies playing the role that so many INGOs play in other developing contexts, and I wonder if it’s actually a more sustainable form of development.

Now, this isn’t to gloss over the fact that staff are clearly underpaid, worked hard and the smaller farms are certainly not upholding anything near a gold standard of good practice. But I certainly had my eyes opened to some of the positives (or at least not so negatives) that I hadn’t appreciated – especially in terms of peace.

During the 2007 riots, during which Naivasha was a hotbed of violence and unrest, the larger flower farms actually played a surprising role in protecting their employees (predominantly Luo) from attacks by opposing tribes (predominantly Kikuyu) by paying them in full for the rest of the month and using the flower trucks to move them to a safe areas from where they could return to their indigenous homes. Some even housed their staff in safety on the premises of the farms.

With the benefits of course come new challenges, for example the massive in-migration into Naivasha from all over the country, even Nairobi, by people hoping to find work in the flower farms – people think “the streets of Naivasha are paved with gold”, said a member of the Lake Naivasha Water Resource Users Authority. Most flower workers are migrants, and live in slums around the city, without sanitation and therefore further polluting the lake with detergent from washing and with human waste. The flower firms also have the best access to the waters of Lake Naivasha, historically a watering hole for Maasai livestock during dry seasons, bringing them into direct conflict with the pastoralist herders obstructing them from accessing the lake to water their animals – especially when the lake waters are low, like in the major drought of 2009. Dialogue between the groups resolved some issues, but others remain dormant, waiting for another drought to erupt again.

So are the roses good for peace and development in Naivasha? It’s not black and white, but at least more colourful than grey.

The first part of this story, which looks at the issue of the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Janani visited Kenya as part of her research for our new initiative, the ‘Peace Audit’.