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The Global Rose as Social Tool

The New York Times

NAIVASHA, Kenya – The view persists that a rose is a rose is a rose. But that’s so 20th century! In this new era a rose is a global product vested with the power to bring social and environmental change.

I am not asking you to remove the romance from a rose, for that would be asking too much, but as you pick out blooms for your beloved at the supermarket, try resetting your rose associations in order to see the world as it is.

From here in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Longonot Horticulture exports 90,000 rose stems a day. Its rose bushes come in red, yellow, orange, white, pink and cerise. Whatever color bunch a London or Copenhagen supermarket needs, it will provide pronto.

Flower production has grown rapidly. Longonot started with just 10 acres of roses in 2002; it now farms 60 acres. “The conditions are right,” Harry Milbank, the general manager, told me. “You’ve got many hours of sunlight and high altitude coolness. If it’s too hot, the rose bolts. It puts out a flower with a small head.”

Nobody loves a bolting rose, of course. Long stems and large heads are prized. As with good wine, too much heat is the enemy of refinement.

Milbank, from a white Zimbabwean farming family targeted by the peevish tyrant Robert Mugabe, ushered me into a greenhouse of 60,000 bushes. He explained how the planting is done at a slight slope so that water is recuperated and the need to cut when a bud is neither too tight nor too open.

“If there’s too much cerise,” he said, “We hold back and send yellow.”

Now, walk yourselves back from those pretty yellow roses on a store shelf and what you find is this: Kenyan women in green uniforms, taking roses from a cold room, cutting them to a standard length of 20.5 inches, removing leaves and thorns, bunching them, and wrapping them (complete with plant food package).

Within two days, the roses will be in Europe, probably Britain, where 70 percent of production goes. A small number is flown to the United States. By the fifth day, they will be in supermarkets. A four-day shelf life is allowed, and a 7-day guarantee is given buyers. So the roses must be good for just over two weeks.

Most of the roses I saw were destined for the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain in Britain, with a price tag of the equivalent of $10 already affixed. I asked Helen Buyaki, aged 27, one of 1,800 employees at the farm, what she earns: “4,500 shillings a month.” That’s 70 bucks.

Look at the global economy one way and Buyaki earns the equivalent of seven bunches of roses for a month’s labor. That smacks of exploitation. Look at it another and she has a job she’d never have had until globalization came along.

I say what’s going on here is hopeful. It’s a primer in how globalization can be good for humanity – and not just rich humanity. As Milbank put it, “More and more people want a socially and ethically acceptable rose.”

What’s that mean? It means Longonot has worked to acquire “fair trade” certification from the International Fair Trade Association, a group that insists producers look after workers in industries from flowers to coffee. Europeans and Americans are increasingly demanding “fair trade” products.

So Buyaki, like others, gets free health care. Workers spraying chemicals have the right protective clothing. Use of chemicals is cut by the breeding of tiny predatory mites that feed on destructive flower-eating mites and by the production of natural compost.

Being anti-globalization is dumb. A good way to improve globalization is to insist on fair trade certification. The harsh edges of capitalism were once rounded in Europe under socialism’s rose banner. That’s done. Now the challenge is global poverty.

Africans don’t need charity. They need the jobs globalization brings. They also need the developed world’s social and environmental pressure.

It makes sense to produce flowers here. The carbon footprint of a Kenyan rose is much smaller than that of a Dutch rose grown with artificial heating and lighting.

But life has been hard recently. Kenya’s many tribes have long flocked to the Rift Valley for economic opportunity. So when a disputed election sparked ethnic violence, the local toll was heavy.

Longonot was shut down; Luo employees fled to the west and have not returned; a camp down the road houses about 1,300 refugee Luos in tents.

This violence reflects many things, among them how critical African job-creation is. “These clashes are really about poverty. If people have money, they care less who’s ruling,” Julius Njuguna, a manager, told me.

Think again: roses, refugees and righting African wrongs are linked. A rose that’s a social tool can smell as sweet.

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