From Africa, With Love

“From Africa, With Love,” The Daily, 14 February 2011.

Why Valentine’s Day is the ultimate African holiday.

The road to Kitengela in southeastern Kenya is dotted with cement factories, scrub brush and the occasional zebra. Turning off the main road, the dust settles, revealing acres of billowing greenhouses that host the flowers that will be sold this Valentine’s Day.

Between chocolate from the west coast and roses from the east coast, love is a big business in Africa.

Globally, almost 200 million rose stems are sold on Valentine’s Day—and most lovers have no idea that their holiday gifts are grown in African soil. Arwin Patil, manager for Prima Rosa Flowers, which plants 70 hectares near Kitengela, says their farm produces 400,000 stems daily—and has taken orders for two million flowers this Valentine’s Day. Of western cluelessness, he says, “yes, flowers come from Kenya, but how would they know that?”

But the international trade in cut flowers has long been an east African specialty. In Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya, hundreds of smallholder flower companies harvest roses, carnations, lilies and chrystanthemums for bulk export. Each day, massive airliners head from the horn of Africa to Amsterdam, Geneva, New York or Dubai—bearing bouquets for special occasions halfway around the world.

While Africans are fueling today’s romantic rendezvous, the growers who pick and sell flowers don’t believe in love so much as opportunity. Agriculture accounts for about a quarter of Kenya’s GDP, with nearly three fourths of the population depending on the sector directly or indirectly. In central Nairobi, a vendor named Kingoro trims thorns from a stack of roses. He’s single, but still, he says, “Valentine’s day is good to me.” He sells stems of lilies and birds of paradise, and roses in ribbon-wrapped baskets for the equivalent of 45 dollars a pop. Of the booming international flower trade, he says, “It’s good for them to support us.”

While many American roses are grown in California, east Africa is the largest supplier of roses to the EU—a significant contributor to regional income generation and economic development. The industry has accounted for $300 million in Kenya’s foreign exchange earnings, and new, African-owned farms are blooming across the border in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The World Bank has begun using the east African flower industry as a template for other industrial policies in the region.

And while nothing says Valentine’s Day like a bouquet of red roses, a heart shaped box is never far behind. And on the west coast of Africa, chocolate is king.

Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria produce over two-thirds of the world’s supply of cocoa—ninety percent of which is grown by smallholder farmers. This long history of producing cocoa has attracted western companies like Nestle, Cadbury and Cargill, but hasn’t brought awareness to their consumers. While Belgium and Switzerland have built brands around chocolate indulgences, it’s Africans who grow the beans that go into the millions of Lindt, Mars and Cadbury chocolates that that will be sold today.

As with flowers, African chocolate matters as more than just food: Cocoa has played a role in resolving the recent electoral crisis in Cote D’Ivoire—opposition leader Alassane Outtara issuing a one month ban on production as a means of defunding deposed president Laurent Gbagbo.

Global demand for chocolate is big and getting bigger, with $5.5 billion worth of cocoa bought and sold every year. Americans consume 25 percent of the chocolate produced worldwide (Europe buys half, and the African continent consumes just three percent), but rising global incomes have created demand for chocolate—once considered a luxury—in emerging markets worldwide.

This is good news for Africa. While the flower industry took a hit during the global recession in 2009, sales have rebounded and continue to drive foreign exchange earnings. Trends in the global chocolate industry, on the other hand, have shifted toward fairly traded and organic chocolate with higher cocoa content (demand for dark chocolate is growing at 30 percent a year). African farmers are well-positioned to capitalize on this demand—not as a matter of romance, but as a hard-headed business opportunity.

There is work to do—trade policies that support smallholder farmers are sorely needed, from the US and other advanced economies. Local governments could do more to reduce the tax burden on these producers and stand up for fair labor practices. Supply chain improvements will help Africa to spread even more love around the world.

But this is just one of many unrecognized ways in which Africa enriches the global economy. Individual consumers can take the time to recognize and support African flower and chocolate producers—much the same way fairly traded tea and coffee have become a source of sustainable income in east Africa.

Even after Valentine’s Day, it’s a win-win.

 

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