Watching the Kenyan and Ugandan sister television stations on Valentine day this year, one would not fail to conclude that there were more smiles and red colours in the streets of Kampala than Nairobi! My hunch is that the Kenyan economy has had a major problem, leading to lessened contents in its citizens stomachs because the economy has in the last two years been hit hard by the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and drought, events that have wreaked havoc on food systems as seen in skyrocketing food prices. And, there are clear signals that 2023 is likely to shape up to be a rough one for the country economy. Multiple factors are likely to come into play and affect the growth prospects in the country. On its part, Uganda has never really suffered from serious hunger pangs. Even in the days of Idi Amin war, there was matoke in the wilderness which ensured nobody went to bed in an empty stomach. There is something the Uganda INSSPIRE colleagues (Robert et al) have to teach Kenyans, who are busy running away from growing food for the cut flowers!
Agreeably, flowers are powerful symbols. No celebration is complete without flowers. The plant part has been used for centuries by humanity as a symbol of beauty, purity and perfection in social events and religious ceremonies. This explains why across the world there is always a palpable sense of expectation in the air for lovers ahead of Valentine’s Day celebrations. A bunch of roses on Valentine’s Day conveys love. Red roses are the most popular flowers that people share to mark the day of romance, the most popular types being the Ever Red and Madam Rose.
Blooms are a booming business, and the global cut flowers industry is worth billions of USD a year. For Kenya, flowers are the country’s second largest export after tea. Among the flower products marketed, the cut flower segment is the most important, as it achieves a high added value. But behind the beautiful bouquets are significant environmental and human costs. The global flower trade is rapid and episodic, which amplifies the industry’s environmental footprint. Many of the flowers are grown in high-altitudes, industrial-scale greenhouses (for disease, pest and humidity control), and the flower farms can exceed 500 acres. The flowers are also thirsty plants, which contribute to high water use and chemical runoff. In the ASALs of Kenya, the flowers are huge water drawers from the aquifers and the surface. Abuse of the Water Law contributes to many illegal deep boreholes that over pump the aquifers and dry the alluvial. Concerns about the flower farming around Lake Naivasha have been raised and linked to the area’s ecology. Too much water is being taken out and too much polluted water is being put back in. On top of pollutants and water use, flowers generate serious carbon emissions because of refrigeration and long-haul transport. The flowers are grown in greenhouses, picked and transported in refrigerated containers.
The current model of flower consumption isn’t just harming the planet but workers. The environmental and human impact of the cut flower industry is on a par with other major agricultural products. Despite some use of personal protective equipment, floriculture workers are exposed to toxins in fertilizers and insecticides, as well as preservatives used to extend the life of blooms. Flower crops are commonly subjected to intense attack by pests, especially insects and fungi, and pesticides are commonly used to prevent losses in production. Pesticide use in the cut flower industry is widespread, characterized by inadequate limits on pesticides which influences pesticide overuse in production areas, as well as the transfer of contaminated products between countries. In Australia for example, flowers may be treated with glyphosate, an herbicide and desiccant, before they can enter the country. Preservatives are sometimes sprayed to keep the flowers looking better and providing a longer shelf life. The absence of MRL for non-edible flowers can be crucial for the trade of contaminated products across borders, including pesticides banned in importing countries. 2
The high consumption of pesticides in flower crops is mostly associated with genetic changes in plants, which in many cases can result in the removal of the wild gene that promotes their natural defenses, the demand for high quality products by the international market, including the absence of pathogens and, the absence of regulation, which involves not determining the maximum residue limits of pesticides for flowers not intended for feeding. Studies also point to consequences of pesticides for workers of the floral industry, from farmers (Lu, 2005) to salespeople (Toumi et al., 2017), as well as residents of flower growing areas (Friedman et al., 2020). Among the human health effects associated with flower production areas, neurological toxicity (Abdel Rasoul et al., 2008; Harari et al., 2010), decreased fertility (Handal et al., 2008; Lauria et al., 2006) and breathing problems (Hanssen et al., 2015) stand out. Pereira et al (2021) also documents adverse health effects that show poorer neurobehavioral development, reproductive disorders, congenital malformations and genotoxicity for residents of flower production areas and workers throughout the flower production cycle. Visits to the flower growing areas of Kajiado in Kenya and, discussions with workers and residents reveal existing and potential grave effects of occupational pesticide exposure and risk of spontaneous abortion. Studies on water samples in the neighbouring ephemeral rivers show overuse of pesticides, while environmental impacts are related to water and air contamination, soil degradation, and adverse effects on the reproduction and development of non-target organisms.
Ignorant workers and people living close to floricultural greenhouses are exposed to contaminated clothing and tools. The wastes are largely wrongly discharged, causing pollution to watercourses and affecting the flora and fauna. Along the seasonal Isinya River, there are reported cases of livestock deaths associated with contaminated waters. Some people in the surrounding complain of unexplainable nauseas. Kenya has less stringent safety regimes for the workers in the flower industry, and there are cases of workers suffering the effects of chemical toxicity. Toxin exposure is large, aggravated by long workdays that can be more than 12 hours. This makes it especially hard for women, who comprise most of the labor force to get maternity leave and find childcare. Labor conditions are not satisfactory with many workers underpaid.
But things must be made to change to enable people have a fair life. Scientists at Harvard Medical School have found a button to reverse ageing and return mice to their youth. They think that will also be true of humans. Until then, people can only prepare to exit the planet before they are 122. This means that people are simply travelling through the earth with a definite exit clause that could be interfered with by the love for roses. What, then, is the purpose of people on the earth? It is conceivable that humans are self-interested beings and that self-advancement and preservation are an integral part of human instinct. But those primordial urges are base and primitive. Beyond feeding themselves, what else should people do on earth? What’s the larger purpose? The answer lies only in a higher human intelligence that lifts them from the valley of personal greed and self-aggrandizement.
If people think, as they do, that as humans they are the centre of the moral universe, then they must live on a higher moral plateau. That means that they must reconfigure their brains to re-engineer a more knowledgeable human. It is disheartening that people know they are despoiling the planet, and soon the earth may become uninhabitable. This may lead the survival of the fittest as the next frontier of human existence unless what the humans have is saved, and think beyond narrow interests. People’s citizenship on the planet carries with it morally lofty obligations. As such, people must go beyond just being their brother’s keeper, or waiting for spiritual guidance from established religions. People need to know more about themselves so as to be less gullible, more purposeful, and purpose-driven.
Roses and Water Poverty
The Isinya area is on annual basis losing an average of five meters of its aquifer, meaning that there may come a time that a vacuum will prevail leading to sinking of the earth. Sometimes mother earth decides without warning to a shake from deep inside its bowels. The result is never pretty. Before then, there will be no water to grow crops on the surface that is currently not recharging the aquifers but using drips to grow flowers! All this will happen despite the presence of various acts of parliament demanding adherence to order, whose management continues to be wanting. The problem seems to have some genesis in the government going to bed with the wrong doers who in most cases are the oilers of the political machinery. This is a reason why some regions accelerate their development when their sons and daughters become their leaders. Families prosper if their kinfolk come to power (try to recall Michelle Wrong’s discourse: It is Our Time to Eat). The reality is ugly. Good governments are about delivery, in the service of the greater good. They should not be in the business of hauling around sacks of favours. Jeremy Bentham once pointed out that the way the government could help its citizenry is by “being quiet”. The philosopher Diogenes is said to have been addressed by the all-powerful Alexander the Great and asked if he wanted anything. Diogenes’s response was to ask the king to “stand out of my sunshine”. Bentham prescribed that we should use the same language when we ask the government for anything. In other words, leaders should be humble people whose only work is to serve, not to lord it over others or grant them false favours. Bentham wrote: “We have no need of favour, we require only a secure and open path.” Perhaps the Kenyan citizens should also recover their dignity. If their only path to progress is via the goodies of government, then they too are part of the problem. The government should be all about managing, prioritizing and directing sustainable actions for the citizenry posterity. It should be very mindful of choices as they have consequences and thus need be objective and thoughtful. The reality is of course distorted on the ground, and this is a national phenomenon.
Proverbially, roses come with thorns. The Kenyan flower cost of freight demand 2.9 USD per kilogramme to transport, which is the highest in the region. In Ethiopia is 1.5 and in Tanzania it is 2.2 USD. Additionally, exporters in Kenya are owed 7 years of VAT refunds by the government. 8 flower companies closed shop in the last two year due to cost of doing job in Kenya. Fear is that more could be on the way in a sector that supports over 4 million people with livelihoods. The ripple effect is loss of jobs and increase in poverty. Can these flower growing endeavours be converted into food security echelons? The profits from the roses do not normally bear sustainable benefits to those affected by the poor practices in the industry. Present and previous governments have always in their political campaigns to get into office promised of fighting for and, sustaining rights. But things and circumstances only worsen. One is reminded of the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who in 1849 warned that: “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Despite the flower industry’s shortcomings, it creates opportunities for trade and jobs, especially in impoverished regions that have ideal flower-growing climates. Problem arises in observing the prescribed precautions to make the human and the ecosystem environment sustainably safe.
The objectives of the INSSPIRE project squarely fits the bill to talk to the ears of the government and other stakeholders in the flower industry. Agreeably, giving up cut flowers may reduce carbon footprint, but purchasing them also supports jobs locally and globally. No single buyer can reverse the impacts of the flower industry, but consumers can communicate to producers and suppliers that there’s greater demand for ethically produced, sustainable flowers. But who will ensure this happens? The Kenyan government is in bed with the wrong doers! But raised stakeholder capacity can provide an avenue to build harmony in the industry. This way, buyers will pose and ask themselves questions before acquiring the next bouquet. At the consumer 4
points, the buyers can acquire knowledge and power to task on how far the flowers have travelled, the human rights observations at the source, who benefits from purchase and, how waste can be reduced. The product consumers can also interrogate Fairtrade or similar certification in efforts to guarantee better environmental and employment standards. Citizen education at the production points will awaken them from the slumber of ignorance.
At the burial sendoff of the mercurial late Kenyan Professor George Magoha that took place two days to the 2023 Valentine Day, his Nigerian widow apologized to the mourners for not wailing and crying while entering the home as the husband’s Luo culture demands. She explained that her new position in the family following the demise of the husband did not give her the privilege to do public display of emotions. She went on to remind the public that she is foremost a Nigerian and would rather mourn her husband the Nigerian way, qualifying the action with the words: ‘when you are in distress, you go back to the womb, and the first language is what one resorts to. I mourned him my way’. Maybe, other than her family and medical first and second loves, she also loves Frank Sinatra’s song, ‘My Way’
Let us have the valentine day celebrations our way. For a start, they say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Why not have a valentine day celebration brewed n the food systems way? It could be a day to make the dish of the year for the most loved one or commence keeping chicken that when they chuckle in the coop will remind one of love. Chicken have true love. Okika, in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart novel says that “Whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, then know that something is after its life,” The way Kenyans are ignoring growing of food is killing, not forgetting the problem of overreliance on ‘leaking’ begging bowls in efforts to have something at the dinner table. Partaking flowers in the race to chase the euro is denying people the power to innovate and produce food or, at least, allow a little biodiversity. The prevalent food systems trend ‘INSSPIREs’ me to shun the red flower valentine day revelries and vouch for a food systems day. Food is everything. What is your take?