‘Compliance is mandatory, it’s demanded by customers overseas’

Tue, Jun 29, 2021

Richard Fox, President of Union Fleurs and Sustainability Director at Flamingo Horticulture, spoke to Horticulture News on a wide array of issues affecting the industry in Kenya.

  1. What is the impact of Union Fleurs on floriculture in Kenya, especially since you became president? Are there tangible benefits for local industry?

Union Fleurs was founded in 1959 in Brussels as an international umbrella organisation for national associations and companies active in the floricultural trade. Its main purpose is to represent and promote the interests of traders of cut flowers, cut foliage and pot plants.

Union Fleurs has members in 20 countries worldwide, gathering over 3.000 companies involved in the import, export, wholesale and distribution of cut flowers and pot plants. Membership accounts for 80 per cent of the total value of worldwide trade of cut flowers and pot plants. All the major players in the floricultural trade are represented in the organisation.

The Kenya Flower Council has been represented on the board of Union Fleurs for over 10 years and currently holds the presidency.

Kenya is a leading exporter of cut flowers to Europe and exports to nearly all the countries represented by Union Fleurs members.  Through membership the Kenya Flower Council has been represented in international forums where technical and trade-related issues are discussed that have an impact on the sector in Kenya. Union Fleurs was instrumental in facilitating the finalization of the EAC-EPA for Kenya and in providing a sector response to challenges that have arisen since the EU-UK Brexit. This is ongoing together with other challenges that the sector faces in Europe on phytosanitary issues and approved pesticide use. Through the COVID pandemic the demand for Kenya’s flowers has been extremely strong. Union Fleurs has been working with other European members to ensure that this growth is consolidated as restrictions have eased.

  1. One of the areas that an organization like Union Fleurs assists members is in information exchange. In what areas is Kenya still lagging behind its competitors and what can be done about it?

The Kenya Flower Council has over the past three years or so re-structured its communication platform and is working hard to keep its members up to date with local and international issues that influence and affect the industry largely through its website and a weekly e-shot. Union Fleurs is an important source of intelligence and information for this — not only because of its location in Brussels and close links with the European market, but also because of its worldwide membership and knowledge of country-specific trading environments. Communication and data are essential for the industry to respond to the local and international challenges it faces, and this is certainly a priority for the Kenya Flower Council Secretariat.

  1. Emerging challenges such as COVID-19 call for new approaches. As a past president of the Kenya Flower Council, what do you feel the council should do to ensure sustainability in these uncertain times?

As the pandemic took hold in Europe in March/April 2020 the immediate impact for the Kenya flower sector that demand for flowers suddenly dropped because of the closure of non-essential retail outlets in Europe. As a consequence, commercial air cargo operators moved to other more profitable routes for business associated with moving equipment and supplies for dealing with the pandemic in the US and Europe. Passenger airlines that also carry freight reduced in frequency and some stopped altogether. As demand returned and increased the north-south airbridge did not return to its pre-Covid capacity and the cost of freight that was available increased substantially. Kenya Airways responded by converting passenger planes to freight but even with this support the demand for freight at sustainable prices outstrips availability.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the supply chain to reliance on airfreight to get products to market.  With UK government support under the Vulnerable Supply Chains Project (VSCP), Flamingo Horticulture with other growers has cooperated to re-visit opportunities for sea freight which have proved to be very promising. KFC would like to see the creation of a green channel to facilitate the rapid movement of perishable product through the Mombasa Port and to permit the use of the SGR rather than road transport for the movement of sea containers.

  1. The horticulture industry, and especially in the area of floriculture, has often been accused of pollution, especially of water resources, to the detriment of local communities. To what extent has this complaint been addressed by the industry?

The export horticulture industry is highly regulated through national, international and industry standards.  Compliance with these is mandatory to export from Kenya and is demanded by customers overseas. Kenya is a water scarce country and efficiency and monitoring of water use and discharge is a key component of sustainable growing practices reflected in these standards. While the industry is very visible with concentrated areas of growing, it actually only occupies a tiny fraction of land suitable for agriculture in Kenya.

The industry has initiated and supports numerous activities in education, housing, medical facilities and services to communities where it has its operations.

  1. We have seen an increase in horticulture-related associations, often claiming overlapping mandates and sometimes focused on a single product. Is this fragmentation good for the industry?

Challenges in the industry can be product-specific, but there are areas of common concern within the overall horticulture sector that are best addressed collaboratively across the main perishable product groups of flowers, vegetables and fruits. The associations in Kenya have worked well together in such situations. The Kenya Flower Council (KFC) has over 120 members and represents members responsible for over 75 per cent of flower exports. The KFC standard for flowers and ornamentals is internationally and independently benchmarked by the Floricultural Sustainability Initiative (FSI) with other standards and is one of only three worldwide standards that meet the requirements for sustainable social, good agricultural and environmental practices.

  1. What can be done to ensure that produce for local consumption receives as much attention regarding food safety as exports?

A substantial amount of vegetable exports is grown by smallholder farmers who are required to meet the stringent standards of export production. The exporters provide training and guidance especially on safe use of pesticides, use of integrated pest management and good agricultural practices to ensure compliance and enhance production.  Many of these farmers also supply into the local market and the same practices applied to products for export markets are used for crops surplus to export requirements and for rotation crops destined for local markets.

  1. Do you see a danger in Kenya’s increasing focus on export-oriented agriculture at the expense of the country’s own food security? How can we achieve a balance?

As I mentioned, export horticulture occupies a very small part of land in Kenya suitable for agriculture and is highly water efficient. Export production represents 4 per cent of Kenya’s total agricultural production. For local production and consumption, attention needs to focus on reducing supply chain losses between farm and consumer, which can be as high as 50 per cent. Many supply chain practices used in the export sector could be replicated for the benefit of the local markets.

  1. Kenya has been largely unable to meet international demand for its produce. As the Director of Sustainability at Flamingo Horticulture and President of Union Fleurs, what have you done to assist other local firms and producers to fill this enormous gap?

As I mentioned, Flamingo Horticulture has been looking at sea freight as an alternative to airfreight with very promising results. In addition to reducing the vulnerability of the supply chain and increasing freight availability, there is potential to reduce operational costs and to reduce the carbon footprint of Kenyan products. Flamingo Horticulture has already offset all of its carbon footprint from its operations in Kenya and associated supply chain logistics.  KFC is working with Union Fleurs and FSI on an internationally-recognized methodology for this and to develop tools for growers to calculate their product footprints. This has commercial benefits to market our products as “greener” than some of our competitors and prepare the industry in Kenya for the inevitable market demand for products to display their carbon footprint.

  1. At a policy level, what would you like to be done to improve the horticultural sector in Kenya?

The horticultural sector has been in the top three earners of foreign exchange for more than a decade and is a major employer, with more than 50 per cent employees being women. It sustains the livelihoods of thousands of Kenyans. Kenya’s flowers have an international reputation for quality and sustainably grown product. Despite the pandemic and limitations on freight the industry has remained resilient and maintained employment. The demand for Kenyan flowers outstrips supply and potential exists for existing and new investors to meet that demand.  However, the world floricultural market has become highly competitive, and margins have steadily eroded. Already, the Kenyan grower is subject to over 40 local taxes and levies and recent changes in tax/cess legislation are placing an unsustainable financial burden on the industry. If the industry is to continue to grow and create more jobs, then the business environment must be made more attractive to enable it to generate additional revenues from higher sales rather than levying more and higher taxes on existing investors.

Kenya Flower Council members represent more than 75 per cent of flowers exported from the country. They are all certified to an internationally benchmarked standard for sustainable social, environmental and good agricultural practices. Where these standards are not met by other growers then the reputation of the whole Kenyan industry is put at risk. The same situation exists within the vegetable and fruit export industry where some growers and consolidators ignore the need for certification and traceability of product yet continue to export. There is a need for more rigorous vetting of exporters and licenses to ensure the Kenya brand and its market reputation are protected.

  1. At a personal level, what prompted you to abandon engineering and to dedicate your life to serving in the horticultural industry? Has this commitment been fulfilling?

I have not abandoned engineering. Engineering as a profession instills an ability to analyse problems and formulate solutions. Engineers play leading roles in a wide variety of businesses. In the 1980’s when export horticulture was just beginning to expand, there was a great deal of engineering works required to build dams, irrigation systems, greenhouses and cold storage and packing facilities, so there were definite synergies with having an engineering background. Since then, although I eventually moved away from running a consulting engineering practice, I have remained very much in touch with my engineering roots. Nonetheless, my extensive involvement with the development of horticulture in Kenya over the past 30 years or so has been very fulfilling.

Photo Credit: © Kenya Flower Council

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