Recent figures by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) show that the country recorded an increase of 12 per cent total export earnings from horticulture in 2016.
Of this, 70 per cent (Sh70.83 billion) came from floriculture, a jump from the 2015 earnings of Sh62.94 billion.
The higher production and total earnings however mask the harsh reality that the average prices for horticultural products were still down with the prices index at 151.7 last year compared to 165.3 in 2012.
This means farmers’ net earnings are less per unit of production than they did in 2012.
A further look at the numbers shows that the value of horticultural — and specifically cut flower — production went down after 2012 for three consecutive years and only rose last year. During those three years, some companies were so adversely affected that some closed shop.
No wonder experts have poured cold water on job availability and the sector’s potential to create job, with floriculture the worst affected. In fact the industry is haemorrhaging jobs as flower farms go through a rough patch or are entirely shut down.
For instance, Karuturi Flower Farm in Naivasha was put under receivership in February 2014, owing to huge debts. Thousands of casual labourers were pushed into joblessness and desperation. Even before the loss of jobs, the workers had gone for months without pay.
Maureen, a mother of three, was among Karuturi employees who were affected and has since had no meaningful income. Desperation, she says, forced her into commercial sex to feed her family.
“I am not ashamed to reveal what I do. We were thrown out without a penny. Jobs have been hard to come by, and I have to put food on the table,” she said during an interview.
According to a 2016 World Bank report, youth unemployment is sky-high in the country, at 22.2 per cent.
While the over 2,600 Karuturi farm workers are still coming to terms with the huge loss, experts warned that the situation is not looking good especially due to unfavourable conditions in the agricultural sector.
The sector has actually stagnated, said Mrs Jane Ngige, the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Flower Council. This means job opportunities have also reduced, she said during an interview.
Flowers form the largest volume of exported agricultural products and currently contributes 33 per cent of the sector’s share of GDP. This means that floriculture alone has the highest number of job opportunities in horticulture.
According to the Kenya Flower Council (KFC), floriculture alone provides 100,000 jobs directly, and another 500,000 indirectly and supports 2.3 million people in the country.
There are currently 4,500 small scale fruit and vegetable growers in the country involved in the export trade, said Mrs Ngige adding that these could go up if challenges facing the sector were handled.
In 2016 the country exported 133,658.3 tonnes of flowers compared to 122,825.3 tonnes the previous year, said Mrs Ngige.
“There was a slight increase, but we could have done better if the pound remained stable. But those are dynamics of trade,” she said.
According to the Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD), the horticultural subsector contributes more than 10 per cent of the total agricultural production and employs approximately 6 million countrywide in production, processing and marketing while another 3.5 million people benefit indirectly through trade and other related activities.
Mrs Ngige said though she may not have exact figures on the number of people who have lost jobs, shrinking horticultural sub-sector has certainly led to shedding of a number of jobs.
There are at least 150 large and medium-scale flower farms in the country which contribute to 60 per cent of the cut-flower exports, and 2,500 outgrowers, according to Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of the University of Nairobi.
This may look promising, but the fact is that horticulture production in general is not doing well. Some of the reasons for this state of affairs are the effects of climate change and unpredictable weather patterns.
“Weather has affected production in the whole agricultural sector and we are witnessing high cost of living. Fruits and vegetable exports have declined due to a number of reasons including stringent market access requirements,” she said.
“... we need systems and capacity building to safeguard trade and jobs,” she said.
Due to drought and unpredictable weather patterns, farmers in horticulture have to learn to reduce use of water, she added.
“They may (also) be forced to reduce acreage which means that production will be reduced and only few job opportunities will be available,” said Mrs Ngige.
While privatisation may have boosted flower farming, horticulture still holds huge unexplored potential, said Dr Joshua Kivuva, a researcher at the IDS.
The lack of proper policies and poor implementation of the existing ones is holding back the industry, Dr Kivuva said during a recent stakeholder’s forum in Nairobi that discussed challenges facing job creation in horticulture.
Dr Kivuva said employment in agriculture is either reducing or stagnating because of the diverse challenges facing the sector.
In a research commissioned by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), IDS found out that the factors that are negatively affecting agriculture, and consequently job creation, include poor land policies, the lack of incentives and archaic legislation.
For example, the research found out that large scale flower farmers possess large tracts of land which are not being utilised while small scale outgrowers are constrained by limited land.
Among other challenges, the IDS found out that there are no employment-specific policies in horticulture, said Dr Kivuva.
Most of the people working in the industry are women — 60-70 per cent — pointing to what Dr Kivuva refers to as “feminisation” of the industry.
The researcher said county governments are not keen on agriculture, although it is the number one foreign exchange earner.
He said county governments need to be involved fully in developing legislation and standards for the industry. The counties should also improve infrastructure in order to enhance the sector and boost job creation.
The forum also called for more involvement of the youth in agriculture.
“Young people are not involved in agriculture despite Africa owing her future to them. They should be given opportunities in agricultural enterprise,” said Prof Tade Aina, the Executive Director of PASGR during the forum.
But the Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD) maintains that horticulture is posting positive results despite a series of challenges.
“Kenya horticultural industry has experienced a sustained growth of between 10 and 20 per cent over the last 10 years,” said Anne Gikonyo, the marketing and research manager at HCD during the forum.
But she observed that reduced availability of farming land is affecting production and job creation.
“Young people are not inheriting land anymore and rural-urban migration have negatively impacted on agricultural production and job creation,” she said adding that in some areas agriculture is being replaced with urban housing.
Her views were echoed by Mrs Ngige: “We should relook at our land tenure policy to have a clear picture of which land should be put for agriculture and which should be commercialised. We should have a balance between commercial and agricultural land,” she said.
Land in some rich agricultural areas has been eaten up by real estate, affecting general agricultural production.
Some of these areas include Kiambu, Kitale, Uasin Gishu, Limuru and Machakos, she said.
While Mrs Ngige argued that it was time to embrace new technology in horticulture — and in agriculture as a whole — with the aim of improving job opportunities, she said it is unfortunate that investors, specifically in floriculture, opt to import technology yet Kenyan youth are tech-savvy.
“We are importing greenhouses and general infrastructure because it is more expensive to build a greenhouse in Kenya than to import it, despite the fact that we have graduate engineers getting into the job market every year,” she said.
Another expert, Mr Goudian Guademba from Technoserve, said use of technology and implementation of favourable policies can make it possible for the government to open up arid and semi-arid areas (ASALs) with the aim of promoting agri-business.
“We should have a horticulture policy so as to incorporate small-holder farmers and the youth in the employment chain,” he said.
Mrs Ngige said because horticultural produce is highly perishable, there is need to adopt appropriate technologies that also add value.
“Approximately 40 to 60 per cent of these products get wasted in our local market because of poor post-harvest handling. This is because we do not do value addition,” she said.
Although horticulture is stable compared to other sub sectors in agriculture, it is under pressure from external market forces, said Mrs Ngige.
For example, she said Ethiopia may soon give Kenya a run for its money in floriculture, despite the fact that the former just entered the sector recently.
Cartels, especially at the airport, she said, were also eating into farmers’ earnings.
Another challenge noted is that traders import some horticultural produce like onions from Tanzania, “probably because it is cheap to produce them there than in Kenya.”
In 2015, horticulture alone posted an income of Sh211 billion out of which Sh90.5 billion was by export market, according to HCD.
During 2016, horticultural exports earned Sh101.51 billion, an amount which can be increased if appropriate measures are taken to promote the sector, the experts said.
Incomes from agriculture can also be increased significantly if the government exploits all avenues to boost horticulture, especially in research and policy, said the stakeholders.
According to KNBS, vegetables raked in Sh23.4 billion in 2016, which was a 12 per cent increase from Sh20,939.5 billion in 2015, while fruits posted an income of Sh7.3 billion.
A recent announcement by the Kenya Airways (KQ) #ticker:KQ that United States had given Kenya the green light to have direct flights to Washington is a good sign, said Mrs Ngige.
She urged the government to fast-track the plan so as to open up the lucrative US market for flowers, fruits and vegetables.
And as discussions continue on how to reverse the dwindling fortunes of horticulture, the farm workers like Maureen hope that the fate that befell them at Karuturi will not recur.
Her hope is that there will be more opportunities in the horticultural sector for thousands of jobless Kenyans.