June 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news: The shores of the
broad lake that spreads across Africa's Rift Valley here were
known to outsiders a long time ago as a place where white
settlers disported themselves on emerald lawns and shaded
verandas, misbehaving blithely in an adopted continent and
calling themselves the Happy Valley set.
These days, happiness seems a far more ambiguous notion in
this place, which has again come to represent a messy and
awkward point of collision between rich and poor, north and
south. It offers a gritty counterpoint to all the optimistic
talk of a globalized economy that will magically raise the
destitute and spread prosperity.
||"A bouquet of spray carnations
grown here costs around $3.20 in a British supermarket,
while even the best-paid of manual workers earns a daily
rate of $2.10, working a 46-hour week."
In the past 20 years, the lake shores have exchanged any
lingering memories of the past for a booming industry in the
cultivation and sale of out-of-season vegetables like snow
peas and trimmed beans, and cut flowers like roses and carnations
— virtually all of them exported to distant markets
in Europe. Paradoxically, the huge expansion of fancy food
for export has come in a land that, because of sporadic drought
and not-so-sporadic economic mismanagement, cannot grow enough
of its own staple, corn.
As the flower and vegetable farms have expanded, lining enormous
tracts of land with plastic greenhouses and dense, neat rows
of crops, the population living within three miles of the lake
shore has quintupled from 50,000 to 250,000. Most of the newcomers
are women who have been drawn by cash wages from traditional
agriculture in villages elsewhere.
With the expansion have come horror stories of pitiful pay
and abuse, which most big companies would rather avoid. Who
wants the romance of a dozen red roses tarnished with tales
of exploited women exposed to toxic chemicals, living in overcrowded
compounds and prey to the lusts of their supervisors?
"There have been a lot of improvements generally,"
said Stephen Oumo, a Kenyan human rights activist and economist.
But huge imbalances remain.
A bouquet of spray carnations grown here costs around $3.20
in a British supermarket, while even the best-paid of manual
workers earns a daily rate of $2.10, working a 46-hour week.
While some workers live in compounds provided by employers,
others live in hovels. And while big companies pay twice the
government-approved minimum wage, other growers pay the official
minimum — just over a dollar a day to cover housing,
food and bare bones survival. "Slave rates," Mr.
Even the business types acknowledge the
"Horticulture is a first world business and, yes, there
are comparisons that are being drawn between businesses in
Europe and Kenya that seem miles apart and stark," said
Rod Jones, a British executive working for a company that
pays higher wages here.
Once, in the 19th and 20th centuries, those same comparisons
were evoked in relation to the cotton that British colonialists
exported to the mills of northern England for manufacture
into textiles sold back to the same people who had harvested
the raw materials. Minerals, from copper to gold, went the
same route from raw material in Africa to finished product
But then, as now, it was the needs, markets and economic
muscle of the outsiders that set the terms of trade —
just as many African agricultural exports today face protectionist
tariffs in the European Union and the United States.
Here, for instance, flowers are grown at a fraction of the
cost in Europe. The savings are enough to defray the high
start-up costs and the expense of sending some 300 tons of
fresh produce a night out of Kenya to Europe by air freight.
But the profits to be made are governed by factors as remote
as auction prices in the Netherlands, and the level of fees
imposed by the Dutch authorities to inspect the blooms for
insects and disease.
So, are Africa's flower workers, indeed,
trapped in a cycle of poverty from which history offers no
prospect of relief?
Proponents of globalization say the answer is no, because
the self-interest of businesses lies in improving wages and
productivity. "Done properly, corporations create a better
environment for the future and for the lives of the people
than does a sort of black market, shark-infested development
that doesn't have controls," said Mr. Jones, the British
||""Relying on external consumption
as a means of spurring economic growth is a fallacy,"
said Mr. Oumo, the human rights activist and economist.
"You must put workers in a position to earn higher
But the counterargument is that no land can develop itself
by supplying the capricious demands of distant foreigners
while its own people are simply too poor to provide the demand
for goods needed to develop their own economy.
Around here, that much is evident: on the roadside markets that
have sprung up around the horticulture business, traders sell
school bags for children and plastic drums for carrying water.
You can repair a punctured bicycle tire or buy a beer in gimcrack
bars like the Millennium Florida Bar or South Lake Klub. Red
roses and cellophane-wrapped snow peas do not seem part of the
"Relying on external consumption as a means of spurring
economic growth is a fallacy," said Mr. Oumo, the human
rights activist and economist. "You must put workers
in a position to earn higher salaries."
But how do people earn more before they produce more? That,
Mr. Oumo said, "is like the old question of the chicken
and the egg."