Europe’s love of roses sends ripples through Kenyan lake

Lake Naivasha's transparency level has dropped from 1.5 metres in the late 1970s to less than half a metre today, largely due to organic pollution. [Sam Morgan]

Kenya is one of the biggest exporters of cut flowers in the world but the booming industry has created a raft of environmental problems. Local producers are now coming up with new ideas to cut pollution while keeping their business profitable.

Europeans often turn to a bouquet of flowers when Valentine’s Day and anniversaries roll around but many may be unaware that those beautiful blossoms were probably grown half a world away in Kenya.

The East African country enjoys a 38% share of the European Union’s market and is a billion-dollar-industry. It is estimated that nearly two million Kenyans out of a total population of roughly fifty million rely indirectly on the flower industry.

But the horticultural trade has come at a price. Ever since the industry first took off in the 1980s, many of Kenya’s rivers and main bodies of water have been affected by pollution caused by the farms that were set up to tap into the demand for flowers.

A lack of regulation and awareness about the impact of fertilisers, pesticides and sediment on the environment characterised the early years of the industry, which initially grew the flowers in open fields and did nothing to treat the water discharged by farms.

Organic pollution can significantly alter the balance of bodies of water, leading to large algae blooms and changes in PH level. The biodiversity of many of Kenya’s lakes has already paid the price as wildlife experts claim that species numbers have declined in recent decades.

United Nations freshwater expert Joakin Harlin warned that it can take up to forty years for lakes and other waterways to rebalance themselves and that is only if there is zero human impact in those four decades.

Irresponsible practices have slowly changed lately and farming enterprises have now started to switch to closed loops and greenhouse cultivation, with the aim of cutting pollution and protecting profit margins.

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Lakeside farming

One of those enterprises is Longonot farm on the banks of Lake Naivasha, about two hours northwest of the capital, Nairobi. It produces mostly roses, which are shipped primarily to British supermarkets, the Netherlands and the rest of the EU.

In order to lessen the farm’s environmental impact and even boost profits, the company’s operators decided to utilise techniques found in nature to filter and reuse the water needed to grow upwards of a million roses for export every day.

By putting in place a system that uses natural bacteria, herbicide-loving plants and both artificial and natural wetlands, the farm now has a zero-discharge policy, where no water is pumped back into Lake Naivasha. The estimated 3,000 hippos that call the lake home must be thankful.

Longonot’s sustainability manager, Ed Morrison, acknowledged that “no one had a clue about sustainability when the industry first started. That’s changing now.”

He added that the farm’s system also has a number of other benefits beyond its environmental credentials. The wetlands need regular harvesting in order to keep them at optimal filtration capacity and the plants can be made into compost when they are removed. The farm also doesn’t have to pay the water discharge fee thanks to its closed loop.

Morrison pointed out that there is no legal obligation for the farm to carry out these measures but insisted they make financial sense. He also said that he hopes more of the many farms around the lake will follow Longonot’s lead and stop polluting Naivasha.

Meddling presidents, foreign fish and violent crayfish

The lake has had to put up with a lot of human interference over the years. Wildlife expert Mbogo Kamau explained how turn-of-the-century US President Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for introducing non-native bass into Naivasha.

Disappointed with being unable to catch any fish during a trip to the lake, as all the indigenous species had died off when the lake dried up years earlier, the president ordered the bass be introduced into the body of water.

Later on, the aggressive American crayfish was added to the lake, which proceeded to eliminate the local population. It at least had the indirect effect of allowing a small industry to pop up in the area but trade ended when the crayfish numbers plummeted when its food, a certain species of plant, was decimated by the rising crustacean numbers.

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Flower power

It isn’t just water pollution that Longonot farm is aiming to eliminate: its operations are also having an indirect impact on air pollution, since its decision to invest in a large-scale biogas system.

A few kilometres from the farm is the Tropical Power facility, which uses the biomass created from local enterprises under the umbrella of Longonot’s parent company to run a system capable of producing 2.6MW of clean energy.

By utilising German technology, the plant can process about 100 tonnes of biomass every day, producing enough energy to run the farms on completely renewable energy and light 15,000 homes.

It is also the first plant of its kind in Kenya that has been granted a permit to sell excess energy back to the national grid, as Nairobi looks to meet its own obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Another by-product of the process is fertiliser and the plant is able to produce enough for the farms to have nearly eliminated the need to buy extra supplies.

Its improved financial stability has allowed farms like Longonot to participate in a number of local charitable operations, including providing rejected vegetables, a secondary product after flowers, to local communities.

As much of its produce is destined for the EU, its exports must abide by the rules of the single market and anything that doesn’t fulfil the necessary criteria is either donated to local people or sent to the digesters of the biogas facility.

At UN Environment’s biennial summit, held at its Nairobi HQ, leaders from around the world will be meeting between 4 and 6 December to discuss how best to reduce various forms of pollution.

Projects like the Longonot flower farm, which have embraced the sustainability and circular economy models championed by the UN, are set to be promoted so that countries can learn the best practices needed to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

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