Addis Fortune -- Founded three years ago in Menagesha, Western Shoa Zone of the Oromia Regional State, Menagesha Flower Plc was established with a capital of 10 million Br. Having secured 50hct of land, of which five hectares have been developed for flower farming, its working capital has now grown to 30 million Br. While 15hct are used for agro-forestry, the company plans to continue expansion of its flower production business as it sees room for growth in the industry.
Speaking to Fortune, Solomon Sebihatu, general manager and owner of Menagesha Flower Plc, asserted that in one year's time, Menagesha Flower Farm Plc will develop 20hct of land for expansion purposes and expects to increase yields and profits.
However, not all interested parties are ecstatic about the progress of the industry as protection of the environment and safety of employees has been a challenge for the fledgling industry.
Flower farms like Menagesha are facing pressing demands by their employees for security against the chemicals applied in the production process.
Yenesew Enley, 28, who lives with his parents in Debre Zeit (Bishoftu) where he was born and raised, is employed by one of the flower farms located along the route between Modjo and Shashemene. It is now three years since Yenesew started working for the flower farm and handling pesticide chemicals that he is responsible to spray on the farm.
Yenesew told Fortune that in the particular flower farm that he works at, the farm owners give more priority to the flowers being produced than to the employees.
"Waking up on a daily basis before the sun rises, my colleagues and I begin the routine work of spraying the chemicals without proper equipment to protect ourselves from the possible chemical exposure," said Yenesew.
According to him, it is not uncommon to see co-workers vomit and collapse due to the exposure of these pesticide chemicals they handle regularly.
"While I have been suffering from [these] symptoms on quite a number of occasions, some co-workers were forced to abandon their jobs for health reasons," Yenesew, who must balance his better judgement of his own health with the need for employment, told Fortune.
Equipment used during the process of spraying chemicals does not get cleaned properly, except on some occasions where the materials are washed in a nearby stream, directly releasing the harmful pesticides into a local water source.
However, the questionable environmental and labour practices have not stopped the sector from expanding rapidly.
Menagesha is one of the 60 flower farms that are now actively working in the floriculture sector. The flower industry is labour-intensive and currently employs 50,000 people, out of which 70pc are women. It is steadily expanding and industry analysts estimate that when most of the 200 licensed flower projects reach fruition, 72,000 people would be employed.
A significant proportion of the floriculture farms in Ethiopia are located within a 50Km radius of Addis Abeba city limits, while the remainder operate in and around the Rift Valley. Growing annually at astonishing 100pc pace, the sector earned 60 million dollars from exports last year.
Though many laud the fast growth rate registered by the floriculture industry and the goodwill it gains from the government, concern about the delicacy of the environmental situation and the human factor have been voiced by a variety of stakeholders and concerned parties.
The charge has been led for the past five years by the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Union (CETU) and the National Flower Alliance (Forum for Environment, Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and Panos-Ethiopia) along with other environmental groups. These interests were finally appeased when an agreement supposedly addressing their concerns was reached late last month.
The 43-page Code of Practice proposed by the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association (EHPEA) gained the support of those stakeholders seriously concerned about the issue. This document that was financed by the Netherlands' Ministry of Agriculture was a product of an idea born from Ethio-Netherlands Horticulture Partnership in June 2006. The document was prepared by Myrtle Dense of Wageningen University.
The Code of Practice has three pillars that compose the basis upon which a memorandum of understanding was signed between concerned parties. Firstly, companies must be responsible to implement sustainable practices, provide suitable facilities and working conditions to protect their farm employees and safeguard their local environment and communities.
Serving the economic interests, the Code states actors must protect and enhance the competitiveness of the Ethiopian flower sector in the international marketplace. The third pillar deals with the reputation of the flower market amongst Ethiopian society and the international consumers in order to promote a positive image.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD) has already registered around 250 types of chemicals and pesticides, while the Crop Protection Department maintains a list of chemicals that enter the country. Since the floriculture industry is new, chemicals used in the sector are not necessarily included on the list, as they are imported using a special order from the Office of the Prime Minister.
There are around 120 chemicals that enter the country for the floriculture industry found on the World Health Organisation (WHO) negative pesticide list, while environmentalists have categorised some of these chemicals as having carcinogenic potential.
A carcinogen element is any chemical, biological or physical agent that can potentially be a cause of cancer. The term is most commonly applied to chemicals introduced into the environment by human activity. Such hazardous chemicals like flucy thrinate, chlorothalonil, cypro-conolone, folpet and mancozeb are used in the flower farming sector in Ethiopia.
According to the new Code, the flower industry should not be applying such chemical pesticides that have hazardous effects to humans and the environment while accepted pesticides must be applied safely and effectively. Employees have to be equipped with necessary protection and work under clean conditions to avoid any possible harm in the processes of spraying the pesticides, asserted the Code.
Tewolde-Berhan Gebre-Egziabher (PhD), director general of the Federal Environmental Protection Authority (FEPA), told Fortune that the flower industry is in its infant stage in Ethiopia and therefore, the problem caused by the chemicals and other related environmentally unfriendly conditions are not severely damaging for now.
However, in the future, these problems could have a large impact on the country's environmental health, as well as develop into long-term health concerns for workers. The good news is that the launching of the Code grants an opportunity to address these issues before they grow out of hand; a process government agencies must play a productive role in, he added.
Indeed, Negussu Aklilu, coordinator of the Forum for Environment, sees the Code as a first round victory.
"The Code is the product of a lot of hard work," he told Fortune. "The battle now is for effective implementation."
Companies that fail to implement the Code would face the consequences based on the country's environmental rules and these companies would not be allowed to use EHPEA's logo, sources disclosed.
On his part, Tsegaye Abebe, EHPEA's president, told Fortune: "We have launched the Code and will soon begin implementation, but we must enhance our capacity. This has required us to establish a training unit."
The Association has hired Glenn Humphries to head the training unit along with four other experts.
Labour groups too, see their work cut out for them.
"The presence of the Code gives us access to the employees of the flower farms in the country and makes it possible to begin organisation so that these people may come to understand the issues surrounding the industry, Kassahun Follo, president of CETU told Fortune.
Even those profit motivated stakeholders have taken a reservedly positive outlook on the document.
Solomon underscores, "With the Code in hand, the issue of the environment and labour standards would be addressed in a more appropriate and systematic manner. We can now proceed without the harassment that we have experienced at the hands of environmental activists so that we can penetrate European markets by meeting their demands."
However, some of those coming with the most to gain from the Code, farm workers, are not even aware of its existence.
"I do not know about the Code. I just need protective clothing for my work," Yenesew told Fortune.