The five-kilometre stretch from the City Mortuary to Lenana School on Ngong Road, Nairobi, is arguably one of the busiest in the city.
On a bad day, a motorist can spend up to two hours over the short distance that should take at most 10 minutes when there is no traffic.
But if city roads were to be judged by their beauty and not how slow they are because of traffic jams, then the stretch on Ngong Road takes the crown.
On the side of the thoroughfare, there are dozens of farmers who grow flowers, tree and fruit seedlings and sell to city residents, mainly in the affluent suburbs.
One may not give them much thought, but theirs is a lucrative venture that has seen their numbers, species of the plants they grow and customers increase.
George Moraga is among the farmers growing flowers along Ngong Road. He has been running a seedlings nursery there since 2001.
“You say three each. Kent mangoes, tangerines and grafted Citrumelo oranges seedlings. They will cost Sh1,050. I will send someone to pack them for you,” Moraga speaks on the phone before we settle down for an interview.
Growing up in Molo in 1990s, Moraga says he wanted to be a botanist. However, his dream was cut short by the tribal clashes, which saw his family relocate from the area.
He moved to Nairobi, where he picked up the art of growing seedlings in nurseries from his elder brother. After high school, he plunged into the trade along Ngong Road.
Today, he tells Seeds of Gold he makes good money from his roadside farm despite stiff competition.
“There are over 200 people running more than 500 nurseries along Ngong Road, but the good thing about flowers is that they are like beautiful women; they will always be in demand,” he says.
Moraga reckons that as long as Nairobi exists, there will always be market for his seedlings.
Peter Irungu, Moraga’s colleague, says starting a flower or tree nursery is one of the easiest ventures as along as one spots a good location like Ngong Road.
“You need small nylon bags, good soil, and a site with good traffic, water and seeds.”
Many people who buy flowers along the road do not plan to but they are attracted as they pass.
“By seeing the plants as they pass, they remember that they were supposed to plant flowers or they can beautify their homes by planting trees or fruits. They will stop and buy.”
As in any other business, patience and passion is a must in the roadside flower business.
“Some trees like Ravanella palm (traveller’s plant) and Cycad palm can take up to a year to germinate. If you do not have patience, you will despair,” he warns.
Because of their beauty and value, Cycad palm and Ravanella palm are among the most expensive plants the seedlings farmers sell.
Cycad seedlings cost Sh15,000 and Ravanella Sh25,000. Nursery owners like Irungu say they sell up to 10 such plants a month mainly to high-end buyers.
Just like any other form of farming, success is not always 100 per cent. However, Irungu and Moraga say the returns are good and they encourage other youth to venture into agribusiness.
“If, for example, you plant 50 seedlings, chances are only 40 will germinate and end up in the market. But if you bought the seeds at Sh5 each or even picked them up from under a tree for free, then you sell each plant like the Artiplex, which goes at Sh500 each, you cannot moan that you do not have a job,” says Irungu.
Nairobi County laws do not allow soil excavation on the roadsides. The farmers, thus, buy red soil at Sh4,500 per seven tonnes from other areas around the city.
Plastic bags for planting the seedlings go for as low as Sh150 per 100 pieces.
The farmers trade plant cuttings and seedlings and teach one another how to take care of the plants.
“This is like a school, where information is shared and people learn from each other’s mistakes,” says Joy Achieng, from Kawangware, as she waters some plants.
For the last two years, she has been employed at the nursery near Dagoretti Corner. She hopes that one day she will start her own once she gets capital and a suitable site.
Research conducted by the Regional Land Management Unit (Relma) in 2010 established that majority of nursery owners in Nairobi (53 per cent) had secondary education, while nine per cent had reached college level. The rest had little or no schooling.
Nevertheless, some of them like Joy are teaching themselves how to grow flowers by reading books like Upland Kenya Wild Flowers and Ferns by A. D. Agnew. The book is her constant companion.
“If you do not know the name of a plant, you can disappoint a client because you may be having it and you do not know. That is why it is important to know the names by reading,” says Joy.
For value addition, a number of nursery owners have diversified into providing landscaping services for clients and planting flowers in clay vases and selling them as a package.
“For a clay vase, a client pays up to Sh2,000 more but it also depends on who you are selling to. It is a free market and the wealthier you look, the more you are likely to pay,” says Vincent Mwangi, a flower seller, who also offers landscaping services.
Hotels, restaurants and companies are their biggest clients.
“Most of hotels have flower gardeners but when they are carrying out major beautification works, they are forced to sub contract, which can fetch one up to Sh300,000 if you negotiate well. You can earn more if someone recommends you,” he says.
According to the Kenya Flower Council, the country exports flowers worth $1 billion (Sh86 billion) yearly accounting for 1.6 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Experts say informal markets like those on the roadside have the possibility of providing jobs to thousands of youths, especially in informal settlements.
“If you take the arrangement of Nairobi, for example, all affluent neighbourhoods have informal settlements adjacent to them. It’s a symbiotic relationship because the rich get their employees from there but the youth can also take advantage and start businesses that attract the rich,” says Caleb Basweti.
“The rich want to live in beautiful environment, so there is a demand for ornamental plants, but as Nairobi expands to areas such as Athi River, Kajiado and Kiambu, these new plots of land will need boundary demarcation and beautification which is an unexplored market,” he adds.
Basweti advises farmers to market themselves better, particularly on the Internet, instead of waiting for buyers to come to them.