Profiles

Patrick Mbugua’s rosy journey in flower export

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Patrick Mbugua the general manager at WildFire Flowers in Naivasha. PHOTO | POOL

Patrick Mbugua, the general manager at WildFire Flowers in Naivasha, turned 40 this month, an age he hardly looks.

Patrick says 40 feels like absolute balance. Balance in career. Balance in social life. Balance in character and ambition.

It’s also a pedestal for reflection. “Spiritual health becomes very important at 40. Health is the ultimate gift. You appreciate spending more time with family. You also endeavour to make money honestly. You must be able to sleep at night.”

It’s also a period to enjoy life. “It’s not always about making more.”

For eight years, Patrick has overseen the production and export of flowers; roses and hypericum, in a farm in Karagita. He paces the 14-hectare farm wearing an unassuming look with as much poise as his Sorel Madson-lookalike boots.

If anything accurately describes his career, mobility comes quite close. Prior to joining WildFire Flowers, he had worked as the finance controller at Ol Seki Hemingways Mara Camp, Almanara Diani Beach Resort and at two other places. Yet settling down at his current role was natural.

From managing 60 employees to 600 now, he never felt out of his depth. “My experiences in the hospitality space expanded my worldview and built my communication and people-skills, which have been handy in my current job.”

On lessons that leadership has taught him, emotional intelligence ranks at the summit. He says: “You don’t react to every situation or measure different experiences on the same scales.”

The ethos that one was raised with are put to test in adulthood and leadership, he notes. “Out of naivety as a child, you don’t imagine that you’ll ever be in a situation that tempts you to bribe, for instance. But you have to be more deliberate about remaining true to your roots.” Patrick would rather suffer the consequences of a situation than cut corners.

Leadership dynamics have evolved tremendously in recent years, he says. Today, unlike before, company heads are having to negotiate more with their employees on every issue. The top-down approach is nearly completely phased out.

“If you want results, you must be ready to talk to people.”

His brow twitches when I ask him what he struggles with the most as a leader. “I think I’m too critical. Sometimes I critique before commending someone. It is something I’m trying to [unlearn] to be more motivating.”

Patrick is a family man, married with two daughters aged 14 and 10. Above everything, his children have taught him patience. “They have very different personalities. The eldest is very reserved while her sister is chatty. This has made me to appreciate diversity in life.’’

There is also “the joy of being a parent and the love that you can’t describe or get from elsewhere”.

Matching parental expectations, he says, is his biggest test in life. “Am I being a role model to them? How do I deal with my weaknesses as a human being and father? That’s important to me.”

He tells me that steering a company of happy employees is the highlight of his career. ‘‘We export flowers 365 days every year. We can’t shut down the farm even for a day. When I joined the company in 2013, I introduced end-of-year parties.’’

His colleagues were skeptical about the idea. But to his credit, the arrangement has not only been successful but a masterstroke as well. “Your employees are your first customers. Their satisfaction is key.”

His lowest moment? Dismissing an employee for disciplinary issues. ‘‘Theft is rampant in flower farms. Sometimes it involves the police and even courts.’’

His expulsion from Maseno University in 2003 following a students’ strike was also a particularly low moment for Patrick, which he summarises as ‘‘an important chapter that has shaped me in many ways.’’

Poor working conditions, unjust compensation and inhumane treatment of workers constitute the morass that has been flower farming in Kenya for many years. Expecting him to be defensive, I ask Patrick to address these controversies. His response is diplomatic.

“Flower farming has evolved a lot recently,” he says convivially. “The majority of farms these days are run professionally.”

The predominantly European flower market is very conscious of flower sources, he explains, adding: “There’s more scrutiny now on how the product is grown, growers’ ethics and the welfare of their employees.”

Consequently, there are multiple certifications, including the Kenya Flower Council, Silver Standard and Fairtrade International among others. These bodies undertake annual on-site audits, including monitoring production processes such as use of water and fertilisers and employee’s treatment, working conditions and compensation.

“Those who fail to meet the set threshold have their certificates cancelled, leading to loss of some markets,” he says, adding that relations between farms and employee unions have grown cordial in recent years as a result.

“For every [flower] stem sold to a Fairtrade-certified customer, 10 per cent of the revenue is sent back to an employee welfare fund,” he adds.

A Rotarian, Patrick is a member of the boards of Lake Naivasha Growers Group and the Agricultural Employers Association. He also sits in the board of NITA Agriculture Sectoral Committee.

That he is not much of a gastronome is his quick response when I introduce the subject of food. Seafood, especially, “isn’t for me.”

“I tried lobsters and oysters when I was at Almanara Resort. It just didn’t work,” he says.

His cooking skills go as far as preparing “a fairly modest steak or T-bone”, a craft he had to learn for survival, as he is away from home for four days.

I wonder to what extent, the flower industry has suffered the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Surprisingly, his face radiates. It is an uncommon glow during what has been perhaps the darkest stretch for businesses in history.

While other industries were being turned inside out by the pandemic, the flower export business was cruising a glorious stretch.

“There was panic in February and March. Flower auctions in Europe were closing as Covid-19 cases surged.”

Mass cancellation of orders followed. Sales hit a low of 20 per cent. “We would harvest flowers and put them in the compost. Even so, we didn’t scale down our operations. We continued to water the flowers. We only reduced application of fertiliser.”

As soon as European countries went into lockdown and people were at home and hospitals full, demand for flowers spiked.

“By end of April, sales were at 70 per cent. A month later, we were back to 100 per cent export. From August last year to date, the demand has been unbelievable.”

In the end, no jobs were lost at the farm. “My biggest lesson has been that during uncertain times, do not overreact. Doing so might be counterproductive.”

For someone who is in the flower space, I’m curious to know about his gifting habits. Patrick laughs coyly, admitting that he is not creative with gifts “although I’m learning a lot from my daughters.”

“I prefer family holidays because we get to spend more time together.’’ His dream destination? “The Caribbean on a cruise.”

At 40 and occupying perhaps the highest rank in the flower exports, has he settled down? Or is more mobility in the offing?

He quips: “There are so many interesting areas coming up in agriculture. Food security is a major issue. But I’m enjoying what I’m currently doing.”