Why Kenya beats India in flower power

May 8, 2009

NEW DELHI: Talk to any flower seller and you are likely to hear an oft-repeated phrase about the nature of the business: Bika to phool, nahin to dhool (if it sells, it’s a flower; if not, it’s just dust). That says a lot about the perishable nature of the flower trade.

Take this piece of earthy wisdom in a larger context, and it aptly describes the fickle fortunes of the country’s nascent floriculture export sector not long ago, the government had raised visions of India emerging as a flower power in the world, but those hopes, like unsold flowers, are turning into dust.

Some years ago, government announced a target of Rs 1,000 crore for India’s floriculture exports by 2010. In the fiscal year 2006-07, our exports reached Rs 649.6 crore. But since then, they have been slipping. In 2007-08, when world economy was still galloping, India’s flower exports plummeted 49% to Rs 332 crore. In 2008-09, exporters expect to see a further 30% decline. Currently, India accounts for 0.65% of the $11 billion global flower trade.

According to the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Promotion Authority (Apeda), a commerce ministry body, the revised floriculture export target for 2009-10 is Rs 375 crore a far cry from initial target of Rs 1,000 crore.

Now compare that with Kenya, a poorer country but which is the top supplier to Dutch flower auctions the world’s flower centre accounting for 37.8% of supplies there in 2008. Despite the general economic slump, it managed to earn more than 250 million euro (Rs 1,648 crore) from sales in Dutch auctions.

So, what went wrong with India? Experts say given the country’s size and diverse geography and climate, India remains a potential giant in the field. Fresh cut flower exports started with lot of government backing in the early 1990s, but since then, infrastructure inadequacies coupled with lack of initiative from the growers has seen the promise wither away.

“Volumes and quality are the two keys for success in world flower markets. We have not been able to build up volumes, and our quality isn’t consistent,” says industry expert Narendra K Dadlani. “Above all, we have failed to build infrastructure around our natural advantages.”

Take the case of Cymbidiums (an orchid variety) from Sikkim and other parts of Northeast. Cymbidiums grown there are among the best in the world, but due to bad roads these flowers can’t reach the gateway airport at Bagdogra in good condition for export. “These gaps need to be filled,” says Dadlani.

Now, look at Kenya, which like some other equitorial east African countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, have maximized their natural advantages. Like India, they have good sunshine, but they also have similar weather conditions through the year and large swathes of hilly terrain all ideal for rose cultivation.

Also, these countries are also closer to the European market, which cuts their frieght costs by half compared to India. Kenya has huge farms (40 hectares on average, compared to India’s four) with modern technology that gives the country economy of volume as well as quality in rose cultivation.

But above all, says R D Reddy, owner of Bangalore’s Meghana Floritech, a major rose exporter, it’s government support that does the trick for these countries. “In Kenya, flower export is among the top three forex earners. So, the government takes it seriously. In India, government considers forex earned by flower exports as chickenfeed,” he says.

The global recession may just be the right time for such a stimulus. Says Reddy, “Due to the recession, rose breeders are willing to give up new varieties on deferred payment basis. We just need the government to ensure us uninterrupted power and good fertilizers, and a new chapter in Indian floriculture can begin.