Every Rose is a Story

Every rose is a story
By Coltrane McDowell

This year the global flower industry was hit hard by the economic impacts of COVID-19 restrictions. The industry, a bastion of the inessential, of human consumption and excess, was the narrative of its demise. The perishable blooms wilted in cold storage, others were dumped in fields, like Aalsmeer, Netherlands. As COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing are woven into a ‘new normal’, how does an industry founded on the old-normal of social gatherings, intimacy or weddings adapt? Importantly, for this essay, what can we learn from the flower industry narrative and what dangers does this pose in analyzing globalized supply chains?

A recent Bloomberg article described the industry is as a miracle of modern capitalism[1]. The New Institute in Rotterdam in their short bulletin ‘Flower Power’ uses flowers as a metaphor for possibility “at a time when so many human routines, production systems and patterns of consumption are languishing, instead of mourning them, why not let 1,000 equitable others bloom.”[2]  Bruno Latour takes the Dutch Tulip as an example of how we cannot go back to the status quo “Is it really useful to prolong this way of producing and selling these types of flowers?”[3] These examples each use the flower industry as a means of critique and a metaphor. Their underlying narrative is that humans cannot go back to the way things were, and that the global supply chains that sustained a wide cornucopia of consumer goods must evolve. Flowers act as a useful platform for this critique: they travel across the globe days after being cut, their use is for lavish occasions such as weddings and they tax the environment at high cost without providing any useful perceived benefit.

A rose is not immune to the metaphorical, literary, and symbolic devices associated with it. From undying love and passion, to death and war, a rose has been there. Flowers have perceived therapeutic benefits. Rose oil is believed to counter stress or anxiety and aid, sleep.  Flowers have a major hold on public imagination, and thus to witness them being dumped in the millions, or their blooms wilting in cold storage rooms conjures strong images of death and defeat. As a poppy pinned to your lapel signifies the dead interred in Flanders and Ypres, will the rose now carry the same weight of human emotion and memory in the aftermath of COVID-19? The organism com object imbued with a millennia of symbolic meaning now carries with it imaginative potential in the forms of stories and metaphorical devices for the current pandemic. These metaphorical usages highlight the source of the dominant narratives of the COVID-19 pandemic and their audience.

The Bloomberg article[4] uses a couple about to have a wedding as a personal device from which to relate the complexity of the flower’s global supply chain. As the article follows the intricate supply chain, it is clear this couple’s wedding would have involved thousands of flowers. The couple’s wedding plans unravel with that of the global flower supply chain. While the article does connect the wedding to rose farms in Kenya, the underlying theme is how this has affected an American public. The rose’s symbolic and financial value is viewed at the end of its life cycle, and not the irrigated and labored fields from which it originated. For me, the Bloomberg article conjured an untold story, of Kenyan lives and livelihoods tied to the couple’s wedding. 

I would like to tell this story, even if it is not wholly mine to tell. I am a white Canadian who has grown up in Kenya, attempting to finish my master’s in politics and scent design in the Netherlands. I spent the last three months on the rose farm called Tambuzi. When the Kenyan government closed its airports to all but essential travel on the 25th of March, the flower supply chain was impacted. The ripple effect was immediately felt on Tambuzi farm, where demand dropped by 80-90% in the span of a few days. Government directives in Europe and North America meant weddings and social gatherings, where roses tend to follow, had no clientele. The collapse in demand was not uniform. Orders for Tambuzi roses continued to trickle in from smaller markets, such as Dubai and Japan. Fortunately, the farm had a wide network of direct clients. It did not completely rely on the flower auction, and highly centralized exports to the Netherlands.

As most of the roses sat wilting in fields, I worked to extract rose oil. The farm owner, Tim and I were inured to the potential of the rose oil in the face of crisis. It was an alternative to the roses becoming sheep fodder, manure, or compost. As weeks progressed and I continued to distil rose oil on the farm, the story of the rose became more incongruent with the predominant narrative of the rose industry in Europe and North America.

A new rose story started to bud. I saw how Dan the packhouse manager would ensure the few orders they had that day would have the choicest, freshest and most beautiful flowers. He told me, “If they want some roses, I will make damn sure they are the best roses they’ve ever bought.” Cindy, sat in the sales office on the phone with clients from the Netherlands, Dubai, and Japan. It was like was playing “Tetris ” as she tried to line up orders with the few commercial flights still operating. A shipment she had sent a day earlier was delayed by twelve hours in a cold storage room. The roses began to bloom. It meant she had to ask the packhouse team to do it all over again. She was working closely with Kenya Airways. They had converted some passenger planes and had Tambuzi roses buckled in seats for their flight to the UK. There was also Joshua. He was a security guard who helped with the rose oil distillation. As we sat together he told me, “We have to work, we have to keep working, we all want to keep these jobs.” There was Tim, the farm owner. I was immensely impressed by his ability to think rapidly and adapt. There was a stockpile of food when I had arrived. They wanted to distribute it to the staff as the situation worsened. Before I left, he had torn up a whole greenhouse of flowers and began planting tomatoes and cabbages, as the food would become useful for his staff in the months to come. Amid these stories, and the economic hardship the farm was going through, there was not a single moment where I did not find a smile. The doom and gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic had certainly infiltrated this picturesque corner of the country, but it would not dampen or dull the Kenyan spirit.

In crisis there is opportunity, and the flower industry in Kenya was born from one. In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo on nations perceived as supporting the Israeli Yom Kippur War, of which the Netherlands was an ally. This led to a global oil crisis, the price of oil rose 400% making the heating of greenhouses cost-ineffective in colder European nations[5]. Flower production moved to warmer countries like Morocco and Israel, and later to places such as Kenya. Kenya lies across the equator with a temperate and stable warm climate. Roses grown in Kenya use 5.5 times fewer greenhouse gases, compared to ones raised in the Netherlands, this is seen as a justification for the global journey they end up taking[6].  Kenya has since positioned itself as one of the main flower exporters, and the biggest in fair trade. While roses are not native to the country, they have become a point in pride. The flowers themselves less so, compared to the economy it has created and the thousands of people it employs.

            The hashtag #BuyFowersNotToiletPaper started in the Netherlands was a means of bolstering local support for the industry. So far 1000 companies have signed on and purchased flowers to mitigate industry loss. The inessential is being reconstituted to the essential in a time of crisis. It calls into question what is essential in the wake of the pandemic? On the farm I was told Tambuzi’s Dutch clients were still earning 80% of their salaries. Unlike the Netherlands, the Kenyan government has not provided financial support for individual flower farms, although it has directed that no staff to be made redundant. The hashtag movement is symbolic in nature, and far easier to tout as a solution when salaries and pensions are still secured. Each rose farm in Kenya is on its own with how it manages the crisis and cares for its staff.

Roses have never been a part of the ‘essential’ for most Kenyans.  The market for roses in Kenya is far smaller than the global export markets. Talking to a friend in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, she said, with a short laugh, “roses? These are Mzungu (white people) things. I don’t bring flowers to someone’s house, sometimes I show up even without inviting myself.” Given that half of Kenya’s population live below the poverty line, they are not the audience of the hashtag movement. Flowers as critique of global supply chains are also for a similar audience. #KeepBuyingGlobalNotLocal would have a far better and direct impact for Kenyan roses and other produce, considering that is how the Kenyan market was structured.

The current pandemic has called into question globalized economic relationships and necessity that have sustained a wide cornucopia of consumer goods. As living with the virus for the indefinite future is our ‘new normal’, there is a movement to buy local, live local, and consume less. Kenya too is now in the process of understanding what the new local looks like. Although in a Kenyan context, where tourism and flowers are major economic drivers, living local is harder to reconcile. Countries like the Netherlands can afford the luxury of living local, even if this is illusory as produce continues to be shipped from the non-local global south.  Optimistic projections see the next two years being incredibly difficult for Kenya as a whole; with many people working in the informal sector or employed in industries that are tied to global markets, two years is not good enough. The new local is not good enough.

The pandemic has created nations of insularity, where local economies are supported in favor of their global partners. Borders have closed and ‘racialized’ travel restrictions introduced in some contexts. Countries like the Netherlands owe Kenya for their billion-dollar flower industry.  While supporting local, nations that have profited on a cheap workforce elsewhere should also be concerned with how to support industries that have become favorably reliant on their wealthier intermediaries. In an Economist essay, the origins of globalization are far less clear than we think, and “whether you think globalization is a ‘good thing’ or not, it appears to be an essential element of the economic history of mankind.”[7] Returning to more local economies is not the ‘old normal’, but a new one, and one that has a sinister undertone of identity, race and bio-politics. While writers use the flower industry to criticize these global relationships, a person can choose to have roses at their wedding or give to someone as a gift, the repercussions of which are menial. A Kenyan relying on the income generated by the flower industry is not granted that same luxury of choice.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the critiques of globalized supply chains and their solutions stem from western or developed countries. As countries across the globe try to mitigate economic losses, venturing into hyper local states is not a solution. Considering many countries do not have the same luxury of insulating themselves, trade is necessary to sustain economic survival. The example of Tambuzi farm shows that there can still be a global flower industry without centralized supply centers like the Netherlands (whose dominance in this industry spans a century, maybe it’s time this power was shifted). Supply chains can work across wider networks of trade. Borders do not stop viruses, co-operation does. Solidarity is required for supporting global supply chains and the economies of all countries involved. Critique is not the answer we need right now, nor is it a solution.

[1] Faux, Zeke, et al. “The Crash of the $8.5 Billion Global Flower Trade.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 17 Apr. 2020, Accessed April 27, 2020 http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-flower-industry-crash/.

[2] “Flower Power.” Research & Development, 14 May 2020, research-development.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en/flower-power.

[3] Latour, Bruno. “What Protective Measures Can You Think of so We Don’t Go Back to the Pre-Crisis Production Model?” What Protective Measures Can You Think of so We Don’t Go Back to the Pre-Crisis Production Model?, 2020, Accessed May 26 2020  www.bruno-latour.fr/node/853.html.

[4] Faux, Zeke, et al. “The Crash of the $8.5 Billion Global Flower Trade.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 17 Apr. 2020, Accessed April 27, 2020 http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-flower-industry-crash/.

[5] “Cut Flower Trade: How the Global Industry Is Transforming.” BBC News, BBC, 2019,  Accessed April 21, 2020


[6] Ibid.

[7] R. C. “When Did Globalisation Start?” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 2013, Accessed May 26 2020 www.economist.com/free-exchange/2013/09/23/when-did-globalisation-start.

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