Expatriate flourishes in cut flower business

 Red Land Roses managing director Isabelle Henin Spindler. Photo/Diana Ngila
Red Land Roses managing director Isabelle Henin Spindler. Photo/Diana Ngila 

When Isabelle Henin Spindler came to Kenya to work with a UN agency in 1990, she had no idea that in 10 years, she would be running a flower farm in the outskirts of Nairobi.

Isabelle, 52, jetted into the country to work with United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in a campaign to promote and accelerate sustainable industrial growth in developing countries.

After three years, Isabelle, whose husband was involved in vegetable seed growing, threw in the towel and shifted her focus to consultancy.

It was in the course of her new found career that she built networks through interactions with farmers and investors who challenged her to offer them information on how to start a cut flower business.

“I didn’t know about the flower business but they kept asking,” she says.

She committed herself to find answers, taking the time to examine the flower business and its dynamics.

“From the findings, (I established that) an initial cut flower business would cost three million euros (Sh349 million),” says Isabelle.

Fascinated, the investors asked her if she could as well help out in soliciting funds to start the business, which she gladly did. She also went ahead and recruited staff and later offered to run it.

“I had never worked as a chief executive officer before,” she says.

After overcoming her fears, Isabelle plunged into the business. Today, together with her husband, they are among the shareholders of Red Land Roses. Of all the seven shareholders, only the Spindlers are farmers.

Mr Spindler spends most of his time managing his seed business, Syngenta Pollun, which is next door to Red Land Roses.

“The partners have been very supportive,” Isabelle says.

Red Land Roses plans to increase farming land to 30 hectares. At first, they were reluctant due to insecurity, poor infrastructure and high cost of doing business. 

But the development of Thika superhighway has made it easy to access the airport.  The company exports flowers directly to buyers in Russia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Lithuania, Italy, Sweden, France, Egypt, US, Togo, Senegal and Nigeria.

The boom in the former Soviet countries is what Isabelle rides on for her success in the business. Russia makes up for 45 per cent of Red Land’s exports.

A unique farming technique has somewhat boosted production at Red Land.

They cultivate the flowers using a method called hydroponics, which involves growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil, in a medium such as gravel, rock wool and sand, among others.

Isabelle uses the flood and drain system that involves use of laterites (murram) as a medium.

Using pipes, the solution is pumped into a carton with the medium where the flowers are grown. Unused water and nutrient is collected and drained into a reservoir where it is recycled using ultra-violet rays.

Hydroponics makes farming in harsh weather conditions possible. It also uses less water and chemicals since most are reused. However, it requires huge electricity and machine investment.

Although there are a few farmers partly using the method, Red Land is the only farm that uses it fully.

“I don’t understand why people are not using it. In Europe the government encourages use of this technology by giving incentives to farmers,” says Isabelle of the technology which is environment friendly.

It reduces the impact of chemical activity on the subsoil which can take nearly a century to reverse.

Red Land’s roses cost twice as much in the international market. They are also certified with Fair Trade.

The farm employs 160 permanent employees and runs a school fees kitty and a bicycle programme for them. She gives each staff Sh45, 000 a year in fees. In a year she exports 16 million stems with an annual turnover of five million euros (Sh582 million).