Can Kenya Deliver Roses for Valentine's Day?

Receiving roses on Valentine's Day is a universal symbol of love, but for Kenya the flowers are as much about economic survival as romance.

The country is the largest producer of roses in the world; more than 30 percent of those purchased in Europe come from Kenya. The more distant United States is a smaller market, centered in Miami. But this year, Valentine's Day roses were almost another casualty of the country's postelection violence, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives and left the economy in near ruins.

"We've had a lot of our staff chased away from the farm, which has impacted very seriously on our operations," said Simon Harris, manager of the Ol-Njorowa Rose Farm in Naivasha, Kenya. "We've lost a lot of very valuable people, including management and also we've lost flowers due to the inability to harvest."

Ol-Njorowa is one of hundreds of flower farms throughout Kenya, most based in the lush Lake Naivasha region in Kenya's Rift Valley. The environment is perfect for growing flowers, says Harris.

"We have good water, or reasonable water. Very good climate. We're very near the equator, so we have a lot of sunshine," he said. Since the region has been growing flowers for the last 20 years, there is also a "very good, experienced labor force," Harris said.

But in a country where ethnic tension is high, that labor force, made up of different tribes, has been severely tested. Naivasha was initially peaceful during postelection violence, escaping much of the ethnic violence that had gripped the Rift Valley. Flower farms, primarily owned by whites and Asians, were not affected.

Two weeks ago, the quiet town erupted into ethnic violence when gangs of Kikuyus terrorized members of rival tribes in revenge attacks. In one case at least 10 people were burned alive in a house where they were taking refuge. Hundreds of people were wounded by machetes and bows and arrows, and thousands were forced to flee their homes. Many of those affected were flower farm workers.

Joseph Njema, a member of the targeted Kalenjin tribe, is a flower farm worker who had lived in Naivasha for years with his family without any trouble. When the clashes erupted, his family was chased out of its home and threatened with death. Now he lives alone in a displacement camp set up by the farm he works for.

He sent his family back to its ancestral village for safety, but he stayed behind. "I need to be here to work," he said. "This is a very busy time for the flower farms because they want to take care of their workers who are here because of the Valentine's Day."

The Kenya Flower Council estimates that the violence has cost the industry more than $100 million already this year. Last year, the flower industry was the second highest foreign revenue earner after tourism, and this is its busiest season, with Valentine's Day to Mother's Day accounting for more than 30 percent of a year's profits.

Harris says his farm, which is considered medium size, usually exports 800,000 roses during the week of Valentine's Day. This year he expects the number to be down a couple hundred thousand. He cites the loss of work during the days of the worst violence and depletion of staff as the reason.

"The company has lost out in two ways," said Harris. "People wise, human capital, as well as financially from the lack of selling flowers."

But in the last two weeks the industry has rallied to try and export as many flowers as possible. Everyone, from top management down to the workers, has been working overtime and pooling resources to try and salvage the holiday. Armed escorts for delivery trucks and chartered planes for emergency airlifts to secure the safety of the flowers are also being employed.

Despite reports of shortages of red roses, European flower auctioneers have been happy with the export amount.

"The industry has met its targets for Valentine's Day and is on course to fulfilling its quota for Mother's Day in Europe and the U.S.," Jane Ngige, chief executive for KFC, told reporters Wednesday.

There's also an international push this year to buy Kenyan roses. British International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander issued a statement urging people to look for Kenyan roses when making their Valentine's Day purchases.

"Everyone can make a difference on Valentine's Day including to the lives of Kenyan farmers who, given the current political crisis in the country, have been working so hard in such difficult conditions to ensure their flowers reach the market in time for Feb. 14," said Alexander.

It's a sentiment that Harris hopes the whole world takes to heart.

"I hope people appreciate the effort we go through to produce these flowers and that the economy of Kenya is very dependent on this industry for foreign exchange," he said. "We hope that people will appreciate that we grow roses for them and that they will buy our flowers."