Kenyan roses take armed escorts as growers push for Valentine's Day

Eds: MULTIMEDIA: An audio slideshow on flower workers in Kenya facing strife on the eve of one of the industry's busiest days is available in the --international/kenya--flowers folder. AP Photos XBA510, XBA509. Moving on general news and financial services.

AP Photo XBA506, XBA507, XBA512, XBA501, XBA502

AP Graphic KENYA FLOWERS

By HEIDI VOGT

Associated Press Writer

NAIVASHA, Kenya (AP) -- In a country strangled by anger and fear, it is taking armed escorts and emergency airlifts to make sure that Kenya's most warmhearted export -- the rose -- arrives in time for Valentine's Day.

Kenyan flowers -- mostly roses -- account for a quarter of Europe's cut flower imports, and Kenyan growers have been pushing to keep exports up for the holiday despite ethnic violence that has paralyzed the East African country.

They've chartered planes to embattled western cities, enlisted police to protect flower-truck convoys and made pleading cell phone calls to frightened workers urging them to return.

It seems to be working -- European buyers say they haven't seen a shortage of Kenyan roses. But flower exports require predictability, and if unrest continues, Kenya's flower industry could quickly follow tourism as the next shattered pillar of the economy.

The central town of Naivasha -- which grows 60 percent of Kenya's flowers -- was hit last month. Dozens of people were hacked to death and homes were torched in one of many waves of violence since a disputed Dec. 27 election sparked ethnic clashes.

Flower farms were relatively untouched, but no one showed up to pick the roses and hypericum at Wildfire Flowers the next day, or the day after.

"We had to call them ... tell them now it's OK, you can come back to us," said Ann Mugi, who oversees the warehouse at Wildfire Flowers where flowers are packed for shipping. She tried first by phone, then sent runners out to homes to try in person.

Most flower farms are owned by foreigners, or by Kenyans of European or Asian ancestry who have not been targeted in tribal clashes that have killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 600,000. Industry officials say only one flower farm has set on fire in the entire country.

But the multi-ethnic work force on the farms has attracted violence.

In Naivasha, machete-swinging members of President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe tried to force out of town western ethnic groups, particularly Luos of the opposition leader who says the election was stolen.

Now, with about two weeks of calm since the attacks, workers have trickled back and flower shipments are getting back on track. Faced with staff shortages, growers have called on those who have returned to put in longer days to meet Valentine's Day orders in Europe, where the holiday is celebrated much as it is in America, with gifts of flowers and chocolates and exchanges of cards.

But Naivasha has not returned to normal. Luos are markedly absent from greenhouses. Those who haven't fled sleep in makeshift camps anywhere there's security -- the local prison and police station are the largest.

Charles Odundo, who used to pack roses at Bigot Flowers, hasn't left the prison grounds where he fled on Jan. 28 after a frantic phone call from his brother, who barely escaped a mob of angry Kikuyus.

Odundo sleeps outside on the ground and lives off handouts from the Red Cross. His wife and two children sleep inside the prison church. Plastic tarps cover their few pots and blankets in the drizzling rain.

"If security will be offered to us after these particular clashes are over, OK, I will go back to my job. But right now I can't," Odundo said. "I could be killed at any moment."

At Wildfire, Mugi said none of her Luo workers have come back.

Kenya's flower industry -- about 20 years old -- benefits from a yearlong growing season, a cheap work force and the ease of logistics in a country long seen as one of Africa's most stable. What's unclear is how much of that stability has disappeared.

It takes a quick and dependable supply chain to get a rose from a Kenyan farm to a London supermarket before it wilts, so even the short interruption has had an effect.

Mugi said she still has too few people to grade flowers by quality. Her graders are clearing 100 to 120 stems a day rather than the usual 120 to 150. The farm's owner says Wildfire is still missing 100 to 150 employees out of 650.

On average, farms are operating with about 80 percent of workers, according to the Kenya Flower Council. The industry normally employs about 100,000 people to export about 97,000 tons of flowers a year.

It has been difficult just to get the flowers out. Some growers in the western town of Eldoret have flown flowers to Nairobi rather than risk impromptu roadblocks. Those that go by road move in daily truck convoys protected by police.

Piet Zonnevelo, production manager of Naivasha's Bilashaka Flowers, said they missed some shipments out of Nairobi to the Netherlands because of plane shortages. The tourism slowdown has decreased flights, so growers are now chartering more cargo planes.

The postelection crisis has cost Kenya's flower industry about $8.5 million in current and projected lost sales, said Stephen Mbithi, of Kenya's Fresh Produce Exporters Association. He added, however, that this is a tiny fraction of yearly revenue, and that shipping problems have been resolved.

In 2007, the country's flower exports totaled about $613 million, second only to tourism, which brought in about $960 million in foreign currency.

Mbithi called for extra protection for flower workers, noting the wide ethnic mix on the farms and their importance to Kenya's economy. Some growers already have begun paying for fenced perimeters and guards at the camps where workers are sheltering.

But even with employers promising protection and to hold jobs for workers who have been unable to return, many who fled can't imagine it will ever be the same.

After five years as a security guard at Wildfire, 41-year-old Nicholas Okech plans to go west, to the majority-Luo town where he grew up, joining many Kenyans restarting their lives along ethnic lines. His house here was burned; Naivasha just isn't home anymore, he said.