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Uganda's flower dilemma

Uganda is steadily building up its flower industry (© USDA/Peggy Greb)
Uganda is steadily building up its flower industry
© USDA/Peggy Greb

With its tropical climate and warm nights, Uganda, like neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania, has the perfect conditions for growing flowers. But, mired in allegations of worker exploitation and government corruption, can the flower industry in Uganda compete with its neighbours and offer the long-term hope of jobs and sustainable development?

Following in the footsteps of Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda steadily built up a flower industry during the 1990s. Despite early setbacks, including growing flowers that weren't ideally suited for the climate, the flower industry has now become a significant contributor to the national economy. The ten major flower farms produce exports, mainly of roses, worth US$35 million a year as well as employing an estimated 6,000 workers with a further 30,000 indirectly dependent through industries like transport and storage.

However, flower growing is still small by comparison with neighbouring competitors, with a total flower-growing area of only 200 hectares, far smaller than Tanzania and South Africa, and only a tenth of the 2,000 hectares in Kenya. After further setbacks, following European cut-backs on orders due to the global economic downturn, the industry may now be at a crossroads.

Dissatisfaction and dissent

Accusations from local trade unions are that workers are poorly treated by flower companies and not adequately protected from exposure to pesticides used in flower growing. In a study by the Uganda Workers' Educational Association (UWEA) in 2010, 40 per cent of workers interviewed never used protective equipment and many suffered health problems.

Exposure to pesticide can cause serious health problems (© FAO/Danfung Dennis)
Exposure to pesticide can cause serious health problems
© FAO/Danfung Dennis

A few major companies admit that there have been problems with the workforce but deny concerns over pesticides. Jacques Schrier, managing director of Fiduga Ltd, a major flower producer near the capital Kampala, says he was forced to sack two managers on his farm after he found out they were extorting salaries from other staff and having sex with female co-workers. But, he says, workers have twice-monthly blood tests to monitor any potential problems from pesticide exposure.

Helga Franklyn, a junior manager at another flower company, Jambo Roses, backs this up saying workers on their pesticide spraying team wear full protective clothing and are given pre-employment health checks to diagnose health problems, like asthma, before they start.

Both managers admit salaries are low at around 65,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) or US$25 a month. Workers on the spraying team get more - 250,000 UGX a month. Staff turnover is also high at more than ten per cent. "Many just come for a month to get some money and then go," says Helga, who adds that women, who make up almost 60 per cent of her workforce, are more reliable. "Most of them have children and many have been abandoned by their husbands. Whereas the men can come in one day and then the next day be off selling doughnuts or riding bicycle taxis."

Costs and corruption

Despite concerns over the workforce, Schrier, who is also chairman of the Uganda Flower Exporters Association (UFEA), says the main problems facing the industry are high air freight costs and corruption, which he fears is now making potential investors look to Asia and other alternative locations to grow flowers.

The 10 major flower farms produce exports worth US$35 million a year (© WRENmedia)
The 10 major flower farms produce exports worth US$35 million a year
© WRENmedia

Most flower farms are located near Entebbe international airport, where landing taxes and the lack of dedicated air freight for flowers mean that flying costs are around US$1 per kilo of flowers higher than in neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania; they use dedicated cargo aircraft, as well as purchasing space on passenger airlines.

"The climate is so special in Uganda; with a low differential between day and night temperatures, it is even better than Costa Rica," says Schrier. "It's a unique selling point for the country. More investors should be coming here." He argues that the Government does little to help the flower industry with, for example, long delays in obtaining approval for importing pesticides. But tax breaks are given to companies that pay bribes and to a farm that is part-owned by the president's wife.

"I don't mind about the bribes and tax breaks but I just wish they would help us compete on a level-playing field with neighbouring countries like Kenya and Tanzania," says Schrier.

Play to your strengths

In the long-run Schrier believes Uganda needs to move away from predominantly growing flowers and cuttings towards the pot plants sector, where it can better compete with competitors in Africa and Asia. His own company will begin its first shipments of pot plants, such as otsteos, dahlias, impatients and geraniums, to Europe this month, and he hopes they will make up 50 per cent of his sales within five years.

"Pot plants are a huge market that has not yet developed in Africa. There's huge potential for this sector to encourage more investors to come here and get the industry growing. Because of the climate, any crop can be grown here quicker, cheaper and with less chemicals than in Europe," he says.

Written by: Tom Levitt

Date published: March 2011


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It is true most flower firms exploit workers and the fact th... (posted by: Denis Twinamatsiko)


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