News 2008


Life in Kenya far from a bed of roses

February 12 2008

By Jack Kimball

Naivasha, Kenya - Past the greenhouses and fields of roses, a chain fence surrounds rows of white tents.

In the lakeside town of Naivasha, flower farms - which make Kenya the biggest supplier to Europe - are, as usual, in overdrive in the run-up to Valentine's Day on Thursday.

But behind the fence live 1 000 refugees, and there is nothing normal this year for Naivasha's army of flower-workers, still in shock from an explosion of violence in their town.

Naivasha erupted into ethnic clashes at the end of January

Like some other parts of Kenya's Rift Valley, Naivasha erupted into ethnic clashes at the end of January, as a post-election dispute spread violence round the nation.

The dispute set Kikuyus of President Mwai Kibaki's community against pro-opposition Luos and others from western Kenya who had come to live and work in Naivasha. Many fled, but 1 000 mainly Luos now live in this guarded camp set up by the Red Cross.

A green truck enters the compound as one worker, Stephen Owiso, recounts how gangs burned his possessions and forced him, like many friends, into the camp.

He sent his wife and three children away to their original home in western Kenya. A van provided by the European company he works for now ferries him to the farm each day.

"Many people from western province have left for safety, so the number of people working has gone down," says Owiso, explaining that the usual longer hours before Valentine's Day were now extended even further.

"The little I get I send to my family," adds Owiso, one of about 30 000 workers in Kenya's flower sector which earned $700-million in 2006.

The vicious fights in Naivasha saw Kikuyu gangs drive away Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins, and forced the army to fire rubber bullets from helicopters to disperse mobs.

The violence was part of a revenge cycle that began after opposition leader and Luo, Raila Odinga, rejected Kibaki's win.

A union of flower workers estimates as many as 3 000 people, mainly Luos, have left the farms due to the violence.

Growers have been recruiting day workers to catch up with picking for the Valentine's Day rush. Millions of flowers are cut each day, sent in sealed and cooled containers to Nairobi airport, then flown to Western florists and supermarkets.

This week, lines of labourers could be seen waiting outside some of at least 50 flower farms in Naivasha.

"The workload for the remaining workers is too much," says Peter Otieno, branch secretary of Kenya's Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union.

"Some farms are more affected than others. Those that have workers living on company premises are better off."

The precision needed in the industry, which can move a rose bud from the field to a shelf in Europe within 48 hours, means there is little margin for error.

The Kenyan crisis, which has killed more than 1 000 people, displaced 300 000 and spooked foreign investors, is the biggest challenge Kenya's horticultural industry has faced.

But after initial panic, firms say the Naivasha flower business is back on track.

For workers, however, it's a different story.

"I have no friends left," said one, Violet, lamenting the departure of many former colleagues in the fields. "They had to save their lives. Most were saying they would not come back."

- Reuters -