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Not many years ago Kenya’s flowers were produced by hundreds of small producers, providing livelihood for thousands. Now they are produced by a handful of multinationals. Those who own the farms in Naivasha as well as middle agencies make enormous profits, but the direct producers – the wage workers – get very little.


Lake Naivasha is less than an hour’s drive from Nairobi. At 1,884 meters, it is in a complex geological combination of volcanic rocks and sedimentary deposits. It is fed by the perennial Malewa and Gilgil rivers at the highest elevation of the Rift Valley. When you get there, it is like paradise – or used to be. The first time I went there as a young man was in 1957. I was spellbound by its beauty – lush banks adorned with yellow acacia; in the clean waters you could see thousands of various kinds of fish … and yes, hippos; looking up at the skies you could see thousands of birds, including the pink-plumaged flamingo migrating from Lake Nakuru, and multi-coloured butterflies. The lake provided livelihood to thousands of fisher folk, and water for the farming community.

Some 50 years later, in 2009, I went back to the lake. I was dismayed, in fact depressed. The lake and its surroundings were unrecognisable. I saw roses and giant-sized greenhouses everywhere – but no butterflies, no birds, and practically no fish. All this sacrifice in the name of ‘development’. The lake and its surroundings were transformed into a hellhole. Develop we must, of course, but at what cost?


This growth model is based on the assumption that ‘the market’ promoted by ‘free trade’ is the most efficient way to allocate world’s resources. Each country must seek to specialise in the production of goods and services in which it is most competitive.

But ‘free trade’ is a fiction. It has never existed even during the much acclaimed British mercantile period in the nineteenth century. The country that first challenged this fiction was the United States soon after its independence from England in 1776. ‘We don’t want to grow cotton and tobacco forever, and import your manufactured products,’ the Americans told the English, ‘we too wish to industrialise.’ Between 1820 and 1870 (within 50 years) the United States put up barriers against imports from England and went through its own industrial revolution.

Africa has been ‘independent’ now for nearly 60 years, and it still exports coffee, cotton and flowers and imports practically everything else – including agricultural products. You can buy frozen chicken legs and baked beans from Europe in the big stores of Nairobi. These massively subsidised products compete against Kenyan producers who are denied subsidies by the rules of the WTO. This is an asymmetrical war between European corporations and Kenyan small farmers. It is the same with the rest of Africa. It is immoral. Under the UN conventions on human rights, it is also illegal.

Some 15 years ago flowers were produced by hundreds of small producers, providing livelihood for thousands in their extended families. Now they are produced by a handful of multinationals. Here is the boast of one of them, Magana Flowers Kenya Ltd:

‘Established in 1994 we have blossomed into Kenya's largest floricultural ventures. We export approximately twenty four million roses a year to importers in Switzerland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Australia and the Middle East. Headquartered in Nairobi, Magana Flowers Kenya Limited employs a highly trained workforce of 600 individuals who facilitate all phases of rose bush growth and development. Staff members foster seedlings, develop strategic planting improvement techniques and monitor plant growth and constantly check for the presence of viruses and insects. The company utilizes the latest pest control and soil management techniques to produce healthy colorful roses that are shipped to importers within 48 hours of being harvested. We additionally develop new variety of roses by conducting research. Orchestrating the production of healthy, vigorous and disease resistant roses, we also carefully develop feeding schedules to determine which plant foods produce the most beautiful and long lasting blooms. This is why we are the home of the best quality cut rose flowers in Africa.’[1]

Into this already very fragile socio-ecological condition, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has made questionable investments. AGRA is funded by the Rockefeller and Gates foundations. It claims that it is helping Africa to grow high standard exportable food crops and flowers to help Kenya's development. It employs certified agro-chemical crops under multi-genome patents.[2]

Those who own the farms in Naivasha as well as middle agencies engaged in buying and selling, shipping, storing, insuring and transporting flowers make enormous profits, but the direct producers – the wage workers – get very little. The multinationals also outsource growing of flowers to small African farmers, where they live off-site in squalid and fragile ecological conditions. They grow buttonhole carnations and red roses for the Valentine’s Day lovers in Europe, but themselves… they live from hand to mouth.


The flower industry was the main reason why Kenya signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union in September 2014. Today European social activists are fighting against the US-imposed Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership (TTIP). They fear that the TTIP will open the door to US-dominated global corporate takeover of their economies, and undermine their sovereignty.[3] But they do not know that for over forty years (since the signing of the Lomé Convention in 1975) Africa has suffered TTIP-like aggression on Africa. [4]

Kenya signed the EPA in September 2014 under pressure from the Kenyan Flower Council. In an interview, the CEO of KFC, Jane Ngige, defined its ‘mission’ thus: ‘To promote economic, social and political interests of the floriculture industry through active participation in the determination and implementation of policies.’ [5] As of October 2015, KFC had a producer membership of 94 farms, and associate membership of 62 members – these provide farm inputs and allied services representing major cut flower auctions and distributors in UK, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany.

But whilst the Kenya government has surrendered to Europe, the ordinary citizens are fighting back. In 2007, the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum (KSSFF) filed a case against their government, arguing that EPAs would put at risk the livelihoods of millions of ordinary farmers. On 30 October, 2013, the High Court of Kenya ruled in KSSFF‘s favour. The court directed the Kenya government to establish a mechanism for involving stakeholders (including small-scale farmers) in the on-going EPA negotiations, and to encourage public debate on this matter.

That was the last heard of the court judgment.


The flower industry draws water out of Lake Naivasha on an average of approximately 20,000 cubic meters a day. The lake is dying. Officially 130 square kilometres, it shrank in 2006 to about 75 per cent of its 1982 size. The papyrus swamps that were the breeding grounds for fish had almost dried up. Thousands of peasant producers and fisher folk had been alienated from their means of survival. People were facing severe problems of food and water insecurity. Effectively, Kenya exports water to Europe as the water-bearing flowers from Lake Naivasha fly to Amsterdam. If this is not the ‘Empire of the Absurd’, what is?

In 2013 Kenya exported 124,858 tons of flowers valued at around $507m. In 2014 it raked in around $600 million. The WTO congratulated Kenya for finally finding an appropriate niche in 'global value chain'. Development theory apologists say this is fine; all the Kenya government needs to do now is to tax the rich and distribute the wealth to the poor. Another theatre of the absurd. Who is kidding whom?

The inequality ratio – measured by the so-called Gini coefficient (calculated using consumption expenditure per capita) – is worsening in Kenya. The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer.[6] The statistics do not tell the whole story. Go to Nairobi and witness for yourself the condition of the ‘precariat’ - the proletarianised working classes without life predictability or basic security.

As dignitaries from the Empire and the neo-colonies assemble in Nairobi on 15-18 December for the WTO’s 10th Ministerial, the precariat will be shunted off to shanty townships on the periphery of Nairobi.

Welcome to Nairobi! Welcome to WTO MC10.

* Yash Tandon is a Ugandan policymaker, political activist, professor, author and public intellectual. His latest book, Trade Is War, was published in June 2015.


[2] The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was created in 2006, born of a strategic partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation to dramatically improve African agriculture, and to do so as rapidly as possible.
[3] See also: Nidhi Tandon, “On seeds: Controlling the first link in the food-chain”,
[4] See my last blog – “Dangers of WTO MC 10: New Round + TTIP + TPP + EPA”
[5] See Yash Tandon, 2005, Trade is War, OR-Books, Chapter 3: “EPAs: Europe's Trade War on Africa”.



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