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High Costs for Low-priced Cut Flowers

By Colleen Mahoney (James Madison Univeristy)

2008 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

The cut flower industry is Kenya’s top foreign exchange earner, having outpaced tourism, coffee, and tea. The industry has huge impacts on the environment and on the people of Kenya. Flower farms provide many jobs, but the working conditions are often very poor, with little pay and hazardous working conditions. The farms occupy significant tracts of fertile land, pollute the environment, use a great deal of Kenya’s limited water supply, and compromise the health of people, wildlife, and livestock through direct exposure to and/or the release of chemicals into water sources by either dumping or run-off.

Kenya has a high unemployment rate of 35-40%. Although flower farms help provide much-needed jobs in Kenya, I believe the negative impacts outweigh the positive. This past summer, I had the chance to visit and interview workers on cut flower farms. I learned that the average wage for most Kenyan flower workers is 3,000 shilling per month plus a 1,000 shillings housing allowance. Before taxes, this amounts to a little less than US $60 per month. In Kenya’s rural areas, the cost of living is significantly lower than in the US. But 4,000 shillings per month just barely provides for a small family, and that family would still need to supplement those wages with a small home garden, some livestock, and/or another wage earner.

Flower workers work in hot greenhouses with large quantities of dangerous chemicals and pesticides. The National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) visits to monitor the farms annually, enforcing minimum wage laws and ensuring chemicals are not dumped into water sources. The Kenya Flower Council (KFC) also audits flower farms on an annual basis to ensure adherence to their requirements on environmental, agricultural practices, social, health and safety rules. Although these two organizations are taking strides in the right direction, much of Kenya’s flower production is unregulated for most of the year, especially when it comes to pollution and dumping.

The flower industry in Kenya employs 50,000-70,000 people directly and more than 1.5 million indirectly. For the past 15 years the industry has grown 35% each year, but this has led to overproduction and declining profits. In turn, flower farm owners and managers continue to make choices to secure profits, while those choices directly and negatively impact the socio-economic and environmental well-being of the people and land in and around the farms. Cut flowers are chemical-intensive, short-lived, non-food cash crops, and I could not help but conclude that they are bad business for the Kenyan environment and the workers.

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Coffman)

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