As the price of a supermarket bouquet drops to as little as £2.99, the environmental and social impact of the flower industry has come under scrutiny. Tristan McConnell reports on the effect of the horticultural boom on people in one of Kenya’s flower-growing hotspots

Frederick Oluoch wakes up long before dawn and creeps across the floor. To reach the door, he has to step over his five children sleeping on mats.

“There are no secrets,” he says of living with his family in a spartan room measuring no more than 10-foot square.

Outside in the dark there are two long-drop toilets shared with 23 other families and a cubicle for showering. He hauls a battered plastic jerry can into the bathroom to have a quick wash, then steps on to the rubbish-strewn alleys of Karagita in time for the company bus.

Oluoch, whose name we have changed to protect his identity, works two four-hour shifts a day, 4am to 8am and 3pm to 7pm, five days a week, watering and fertilising flowers at one of the scores of flower companies encircling the gargantuan Lake Naivasha in Kenya. The 40-year old, who won’t even name the farm for fear of losing his job and asked not to be photographed, earns £37 a month, plus a monthly housing allowance of £11.

It’s a relatively good wage. The minimum agreed between workers’ unions and flower farms including Homegrown and Oserian, which supply the bulk of flowers to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Asda is £31.

But it’s not enough to get by on. Rent costs £18 per month and with a large family to feed, Oluoch often has to turn to a loan shark to cover the shortfall a shortfall that ironically is around the same amount consumers spend on a cheap bunch of flowers at their supermarket.

Not terribly edifying, is it? And Oluoch’s story is not the only disturbing evidence The Grocer has uncovered of the impact the UK’s insatiable demand for cheap flowers is having on the people and environment struggling to satisfy that demand.

The phenomenal growth of Kenya’s cutflower industry has made the East African country a major player in the global flower market. Flower exports are a key government earner, worth £260m in 2010, and the country now provides more than a third of Europe’s flowers, 70% of which come from Naivasha, according to the Kenya Flower Council. But critics say the social and environmental cost is too high.

Visit Naivasha and talk to the people there and you would find it hard to disagree. The flower farms line the road around the lake and from a distance, the 1,200 hectares of greenhouses look like giant blisters on the landscape. The whole area is an ugly expanse of breeze block buildings, broken roads, vegetable plantations, flower hothouses and teeming slums, which are where workers like Oluoch live.

“If a British consumer could see the way workers on the flower farms here live, I don’t think they would buy the flowers,” says Joyce Gema, a fair trade consultant with React Africa and a former Naivasha resident. “I couldn’t if it was me.”

It wasn’t always like this. For millennia Naivasha was just a lake where the Maasai people brought their cattle to drink because, unlike the nearby flamingo-filled soda lakes at Elementaita or Nakuru, it was filled with fresh water. In the early years of the last century, pastoralists were replaced by colonialists, who settled in the area and gave it a reputation for hedonism by throwing debauched weekend parties in large stone houses on the shores of the lake. The grand houses still stand but are now far from the receding lake.

It was the horticulture industry that attracted Kenya’s unemployed masses to the country’s very own Klondike. In the years after Kenya’s independence in the early 1960s, Naivasha grew as a trading centre until the flower industry emerged in the late 1970s.

Gema recalls growing up in Naivasha when the flower business was in its infancy, and her childhood memories are of a place where everyone knew each other. On Saturdays Gema and her family would go to Banda, a fish restaurant with rickety wooden tables and uneven benches on the edge of the lake, where they would eat grilled carp and play at the water’s edge.

At that time the flower industry was still being established along the southern side of the lake, far from town and far from their minds. “It was quite a long way from Naivasha and nobody ever thought that this was what would come to define the town in the future,” she says.

The restaurant of Gema’s childhood is still there, but the lake is not. The water used to be a couple of hundred metres away; now it’s a couple of kilometres away down a dirt road, on the far side of a clogging tangle of water hyacinth.

Rosaline Achieng is a fishmonger, merchant, boat-owner and secretary of the management unit of the Central Landing Beach, where no fish have been brought ashore in years. The water level has fallen dramatically since Kenya’s independence in 1963. “Some two years ago it almost disappeared all that remained of the lake was like a small dam. By God’s grace it rained.”

David Mukira, a 45-year-old businessman, is the current manager of Banda restaurant, where the house special is fish soup and ugali (a maize porridge). He has little doubt about why the lake is receding. “The flower farms destroy the lake,” he says. “They take all the water and sometimes the fish die from contamination.”

However, Dr David Harper, a biologist and world expert on Lake Naivasha, who is based at the University of Leicester, believes this widely held view is too simplistic. “There is no evidence that the flower farms are polluting the lake, no hard evidence of pesticides or nutrients that come from fertilisers that are used by flower farms,” he claims.

Nor is the dwindling water level entirely a result of the flower farms draining the lake to feed their flowers. The two rivers that supply Lake Naiviasha, the Gilgil and the Malewa, dump seven million tonnes of sediment into the lake each year, according to a recent report from the WWF. This figure has increased with population growth and deforestation in the lake’s upper catchment area.

“Flower farms are a part of the problem, but they’re not the biggest part and they’re not the only part,” says Harper. “The lake has got too many nutrients in it and it gets more fine sediment every year from the eroded catchment.”

That isn’t to say the farms couldn’t do more to tackle the issue. A few farms, particularly those supplying British supermarkets, which are more exacting about their suppliers’ environmental and Fairtrade credentials, have improved their practices, says Harper. “The negative side is that the flower industry as a whole is still abstracting [taking out] a lot of water, and only some companies that grow flowers make an effort to minimise their water use.”

Richard Fox, a manager at Homegrown, which supplies flowers from Naivasha to all the major British supermarkets, says that hydrological studies he commissioned show the horticulture industry is responsible for about two-thirds of the water taken from the lake’s 3,500 sq km catchment.

He does not believe, though, that the level of opprobrium is justified. “The focus has been on growers because they’re easy targets and an easy point of revenue extraction.”

Whoever’s to blame, the fall in water levels has been so extreme that, in 2005, Harper predicted that Lake Naivasha would dry up in five years. By 2009, it seemed his prediction might come true. The lake had sunk to its lowest level in more than a century while the nutrient concentration was rising, turning the body of water into a turbid soup. But many years of drought were followed in 2010 by unusually heavy rains and the lake rose again.

“Each time the lake level goes up dramatically from heavy rainy seasons, the lake gets another lease of life for about three years and the problems get set in the background,” says Harper.

In a bid to avoid the same inertia setting in again, a new initiative ‘Imarisha Naivasha’ was launched last month by Prince Charles and Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga to bring together public and private sector users of the lake, conservationists, scientists and commercial industry to plan a sustainable future for the lake.

British supermarkets that buy produce from Lake Naivasha will also get involved, promises Fox, who as well as working for Homegrown is also the chairman of the Lake Naivaisha Water Resource Users Association, which was set up to manage the lake and its catchment area.

“There’s been a lot of pressure on the British supermarkets who are generating a huge amount of revenue out of this area,” he says. “It’s time to put something back and assist this whole process. We have to identify a sustainable abstraction. We recognise that we have made a huge investment in horticulture, and just to continue sucking more water out without doing anything proactive to try and create a sustainable system is pointless, a crazy situation to be in.”

There is also the huge social impact to address. “The population is around 250,000, right here in town, but the systems we have from the 1980s were created for 40,000 there are five times too many people,” shrugs Paul Karanja, the 67-year-old mayor of Naivasha, who sits in a large red velour armchair amid photos of himself shaking hands with local dignitaries.

“The flower industry has been a blessing for Naivasha, but with shortcomings. We are not able to cope with the number of people in terms of provision of water, housing, sewerage and other infrastructure.”

Jane Ngigie, chief executive of the Kenya Flower Council, a voluntary industry organisation, claims that most of the 90,000 people employed by flower farms nationally live in Naivasha. The town “was not built for this kind of population”, she says,

In recognition of their contribution to Naivasha’s population explosion, the flower farms recently began to contribute directly to the council’s costs around 1p per square metre a year. Last year, they also gave it £215,000 for rubbish collection.

Fox claims the farms are now playing their part. “We do have a responsibility. We are attracting people and they impose demands on services. Last year we started a project donating money to the council to assist with running it. It’s never perfect but we are trying to do our bit. There’s a lot going back into the communities. We’re not just sitting on our hands and ignoring the problems.”

But Kenyan trade unionists say it is too little, too late. They point out that the flower farms profited for three decades before giving relatively little back to the community last year. Meanwhile, workers such as Oluoch continue to struggle. “More needs to be done,” says Peter Otieno, Naivasha branch secretary for the Kenya Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union.

Karanja agrees. “Why do we not receive more from the flower farms to help us improve this town for our own good and for their good?” he asks. “The industry here supplies flowers worth more than $1bn to the world market, yet what we are getting as a town is so little.”

Fox counters that although the horticulture industry generates a lot of revenue it is not as profitable as people think it is. “It is incredibly competitive and faced with rising costs particularly air freight.”

Activists such as Gema concede that farms supplying British supermarkets are “more progressive”, pay higher wages and have stronger environmental credentials than others. Even so, the industry should care more for the environment and the workforce it depends on, they argue as does Oluoch.

“We need this industry,” he says one lunchtime between his morning and afternoon spraying shifts. “We don’t want it to close down, we need the jobs, but it can be more human.”