The rose water debate
'So, this Valentine's Day, you can be a romantic, reduce your environmental impact and help make poverty history. This is about social justice and making it easier, not harder, for African people to make a decent living.' So argued the British International Development Secretary Hilary Benn in February, calling on British consumers to buy flowers from Kenya.37 Much of this production comes from the shores of Lake Naivasha, 120 km north-west of Nairobi in the scenic Rift Valley. The Kenya Flower Council (KFC) says flower farming is an important economic activity for the country. 'This is the fastest growing sector of the economy, only second to tea', said Loice Mwangi. In 2005, Kenya exported 81,000 tons of cut flowers and earned US$350 million (KES24 billion). The sector today employs between 50,000 and 70,000 people, with another one million depending on the farms through auxiliary services, according to Jane Ngige, the KFC head.
Benn's comments came as some were questioning the suitability of these burgeoning imports of flowers from Kenya into Europe. Kenyan journalist Ochieng' Ogodo wrote in February how 'Beneath the graceful expression of love the roses convey and the lucrative business flower production is, there is the hidden cost little known to many: environmental degradation, socio-economic imbalance, blatant human rights violation, and adverse health consequences for workers.' Ogodo warned 'it [Lake Naivasha] could soon become little more than a turbid, smelly pond, threatening the livelihoods of over 300,000 people living around its shores'.38
It is estimated that the flower farms are extracting around 20,000 m3 of water daily from the lake. Many think this is an underestimate, as there are now more than 2,000 hectares of land covered by the steel and plastic greenhouses where the flowers are grown. Each hectare of flowers grown with even the most efficient watering mechanism uses about 40 m3 of water a day, but flowers grown in the open use three times this amount. Some experts have estimated that at this rate of consumption the lake will be lost within 10 or 15 years. According to Earthwatch-supported ecologist Dr David Harper of the University of Leicester, 'The companies will not be able to grow flowers then because the water will become too alkaline. The companies are shooting themselves in the foot.'39
Dr Julius Kipng'etich, head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), is one senior Kenyan official brave enough to openly question the industry, in the face of its vested interests. 'For a water-stressed country like Kenya, we have to ask ourselves: Is it a sustainable industry? It is a challenge for us.' Another is Peter Kenneth, Assistant Minister of Finance and himself a flower farmer near Nairobi, who said, 'There is a danger that Rift Valley lakes will dry up. You can see that conflict will break out. Kenya needs to understand what the real cost of a poor environment is.'40
WWF calculated that the UK importation of flowers from Kenya consumes 2,216,120 m3 of water each year from Kenya. This includes the 'virtual' water-the total water used in the production of a crop or the processes of a given product. The adjective 'virtual' refers to the fact that most of the water used in production is not visible in the end product. It is sometimes described as 'embedded' water. 'When consumers buy a Kenyan rose, do they consider the 2.7 litres of blue water that was evaporated for its production or that this polluted 1.3 litres of water resources in Kenya?' asked Stuart Orr.41
The flower debate in the media has mainly been about climate change, and whether it was sensible to promote the flying of products such as flowers thousands of miles to an end market. The fact that countries with scarce water resources are exporting those resources around the world through horticultural and agricultural produce poses an equally important concern that must be grappled with by business. Deciding how to respond is difficult when mixed messages are coming from civil society and government, both at home and in the exporting countries.
The case of flowers from Kenya highlights a problem that will not easily be resolved. Traditional promoters of development, such as the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and various UN agencies, are not conceptually and organisationally well prepared for supporting social progress in the emerging world, within the context of scarce natural resources and growing concerns over climate change. As these agencies struggle with retooling themselves, leading companies will need to work out how best to address the intersecting concerns of poverty, climate and natural resources.
Good corporate citizens should be listening to people in the global South who want to improve their lives in harmony with nature and who question the growing reliance on those export industries that harm their livelihoods through heavy resource consumption and pollution. In this regard, it is worth noting the declaration of African civil-society organisations at the World Social Forum 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya, in January:
We reject these new foreign systems that will encourage Africa's land and water to be privatised for growing inappropriate export crops, biofuels and carbon sinks, instead of food for our own people. We pledge to intensify our work for food sovereignty by conserving our own seed and enhancing our traditional organic systems of agriculture, in order to meet the uncertainties and challenges that will be faced by present and future generations. Agricultural innovation must be farmer-led, responding to local needs and sustainability. We celebrate Africa's wealth and heritage of seed, knowledge and innovation. We will resist these misguided, top-down but heavily-funded initiatives from the North, which show little or no understanding or respect for our complex systems. We ask that we be allowed to define our own path forward.