Leaves cover the grounds of the greenhouse belonging to Royal Flora Holland flower farm, located about 45 km from Addis Abeba where workers are harvesting and packing flowers. Traditional music blares out from speakers. More than 40 people are working hard on this sunny Thursday afternoon.
Valentine’s Day, on February 14th, represents the biggest annual demand for flowers for farms locally and around the world. Flower exporters step up their production in order to meet the demand from their overseas clients.
Royal Flora exports its flowers to the Netherlands and produces nine varieties of flowers, 10,600 boxes of flowers per week. From the farm workers to quality checkers and packagers, the international Valentine’s Day flower market puts demands on all asepcts of the farm that work to put together the perfect bouquet.
Supervisor Samrawit Gebre, a four-year veteran of the farm, handles the “Process to Export” division, where flowers are packed and refrigerated in preparation for export.
“This is our busiest time,” she said. “We are expected to produce 400 to 600 boxes of flowers a day for this season. Normally it would only be around 400 boxes.”
The floriculture industry in Ethiopia started to develop in the 1990s, and has grown to be the second largest flower producer in Africa, next to Kenya. Over 83pc of flowers produced in the country are exported to the Netherlands, followed by Germany with a 4.3pc share of exports.
In spite of revenues from exports being down across the board during the last year, flower exports grew by 9.5pc in 2015/16, compared to the previous year, bringing in around 225.3 million dollars. The flower export sector showed an annual increase of around 3.1pc over the past five years.
While flower demand skyrockets internationally and domestically, farms are pushing to fulfill their orders and bounce back from extreme weather conditions that damaged their plants and decreased production.
During the busy season at Royal Flora, the workers are provided with all three meals at the farm and work until they have finished packing 400 boxes of flowers. Workers are paid an average monthly wage of around 950 Br, which is three times lower than wages in the floriculture sector in Kenya.
“We work from 7am to 5pm. If we reach our target of 400 boxes, we have the option to work overtime. We get bonuses for going over our target,” said Desta Korge a 20-year-old farm worker.
The flowers then go to the farm’s quality department which checks whether the flowers are up to export level, are uniform, and are free from disease.
“One bunch of flowers contains 20 stems. Each of them has to be checked before they go out from us,” says Mekdes Fantaneh, 20, in the quality department.
The demand placed on the farms during this time means that more employees are needed to fill the gaps.
“We’ve taken on 15 new employees,” says Mekdes Tesfaye, a supervisor at the farm. “We normally work with 80. The prices of the flowers go up by around 3-6 at this time.”
However, the recent cold snap, which lasted from November to December, drove down flower farms’ productivity. With temperatures reaching below freezing in some areas, farms had to deal with frostbite and cold temperatures which halt flower growth.
“It was a difficult time for the farms,” said Zelalem Messele, the president of the Horticulture Producers Exporters Association. “Right now, meeting the export targets is difficult, but everyone is pushing ahead with production as much as they can.”
The export market exerts the most demand on flower farms during this time of year. The country has exported over 50,600 units of cut flower during the last fiscal year.
The unrest that occurred in the second half of 2016 caused damage to industrial sites, government buildings, and residential areas. Some of the worst damaged were foreign owned flower farms. Until last fiscal year, there were around 107 operational flower farm investment projects in the country, most of which were located in Oromia Regional State. Around 20 of the total flower farms in the country were damaged during the unrest.
The unrest had a large effect on the prices of flowers in Addis.
“We use about 2,500 flowers on an average week. When there are holidays such as Valentine’s Day, we use a lot more. The flowers used to cost from 1.50 to 2.10 birr per flower. But since the unrest, they cost about 2.90 birr per flower,” said Harmony Hotel’s general manager, Sileshi Debebe speaking to Fortune in October 2016.
The government began giving compensation to the industries that were damaged after the unrest. However, some business owners and investors are still in the process of trying to claim compensation for their damaged projects.
While farms are trying to meet the demands of their overseas clients during this season, in Addis Abeba, florists, hotels and restaurants are getting ready for the holiday as well. Flowers that haven’t been accepted for export are usually diverted back into the local market. Dealers take them from storage units in airports and farms to hotels, restaurants, and florists all around the city.
“We usually buy flowers for about 1.50 Br each,” says a florist. “There are fluctuations in the price during the year, especially at Valentine’s Day, but this year, the frost in November and December drove prices up by around 90 cents to one birr each. And to try to recover costs, we have to raise prices when we sell.”
While price fluctuations on flowers are nothing, new, the demand for flowers during Valentine’s day brings about drastic price changes.
Ermias Mehari, 27, has been buying Valentine’s flowers for his girlfriend for the past three years.
“I normally buy flowers for four birr each. But around Valentine’s the price goes up to around 20 Br each,” he says.
The push to export flowers to foreign markets and the demand for flowers on the local market are making flowers more expensive for everyday consumers.
“I bought flowers to welcome my sister from Canada, “says Mehari Gossaye. “But these were 30 Br each. They’re never normally that expensive.”
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