NationMedia.com -- High production costs and insecurity are forcing firms in Kenya's flower sector to relocate to neighbouring countries, particularly Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.
Already, five investors have acquired farms and started the groundwork to set up operations in Ethiopia.
Kenya Flower Council chairman Erastus Mureithi told The EastAfrican, "Flower exporters have complained for too long about rising production costs, which are at an all time high now because of spiralling fuel costs, a strong shilling and insecurity."
Mr Mureithi said, "A combination of factors is persuading investors in this high-investment industry to shift their operations to Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania." Ethiopia has become a favourite with the investors, with at least five Kenyan flower firms – who asked not to be named – having acquired large farms there.
Mr Mureithi said even of more concern is the drought currently facing Kenya. The drought has also brought into focus the reliability of irrigation-dependent farming in the long-term. Flower firms are worried that without government intervention to harvest, store and regenerate water, Kenya will not have any farming water in five years' time.
Tiku Shah, chairman of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, said that Kenya has not had a reliable rainfall pattern since the 1997/98 El Nino rains, despite the fact that there is no water policy in place, leaving agriculture at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather.
Oserian Development Company managing director Ron Fasol said Lake Naivasha – where 70 per cent of Kenya's flowers are grown – could dry up due to the uncontrolled use of its waters if the government does not stop issuing more water permits to farmers.
In 1995, the lake was designated as a Ramsar site, a wetlands of international importance due to its rich diversity of flora and fauna.
But with the expansion of the 4,000-acre flower farming sector on the lake, the population around the lake has grown in the past 20 years from about 7,000 to about 300,000.
Mr Fasol said the Ministry of Water and the National Environment Management Authority should stop issuing water permits until the lake waters are sufficiently replenished, "Otherwise, the flower sector will be wiped out in five years because there won't be any water for irrigation."
There is no legal framework guiding the use of water from Lake Naivasha. The flower farms, through the Lake Naivasha Growers Association and the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association, have drafted their own self-regulating codes for responsible water use and conservation of the lake. Among these are keeping a 100-metre buffer zone of riparian land between the farms and the lake, establishment of wetlands for natural water purification and the sinking of boreholes instead of drawing water directly from the lake.
Over the years, however, environmental lobbyists have raised concern over the unmonitored use of water from the lake by flower farms, as well as the uncontrolled sinking of boreholes. Farmers around the lake, who initially dismissed the concerns as alarmist, now want the government to control water usage and enforce regulations to protect the lake, including ensuring that permits for domestic water are not used for large-scale farming, a common malpractice.
Minister for Water Mutua Katuku said the government was studying the situation with a view to taking action, adding, "We do not want to reach a situation where we cannot move any more."
According to Permanent Secretary for Agriculture Dr Romano Kiome, the government has drawn up a comprehensive water harvesting and conservation policy within the current Agricultural Strategic Plan that will see stalled irrigation schemes revived. Micro-dams and large-scale boreholes are to be built all over the country for water harvesting. A fresh inventory is to be carried out to establish how many small dams and water pans there are in Kenya.
The last such exercise, done in 1992, put the number of dams at 406 and water pans at 2,254. The new inventory will be useful in the planned transition of water use patterns from the current smallholder and private commercial farms to community-based irrigation.
There are growing concerns that the success of Kenya's flower industry, whose earnings are estimated at $350 million, has blinded the authorities to the reality of the competition, to break the country's domination of the world's largest market – the European Union. Kenya has commanded a 25 per cent market share since 2000 after edging out Columbia and Israel and, last year, its share increased to 31 per cent. But now, emerging suppliers such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda have designed intensive marketing programmes to promote their countries as friendly for foreign flower investors.