From Oserian with ten lessons for you

Saturday August 6 2016

Oserian greenhouse supervisor Rose Nyaguthi and Wahome Mwangi push out roses after harvest. Oserian Flowers exports 400 million cut flowers per annum to the UK, Netherlands and US.

Oserian greenhouse supervisor Rose Nyaguthi and Wahome Mwangi push out roses after harvest. Oserian Flowers exports 400 million cut flowers per annum to the UK, Netherlands and US. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By KINGWA KAMENCU
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On Thursday I found myself at Oserian Development Company Limited, or simply Oserian Flowers, in Naivasha.

Numerously feted as the best employer (National Farmers Awards 2014), most innovative African Producer (Sainsbury’s Supermarket of the UK) for level of commitment to environmental protection and working environment for staff, a group of academic researchers and I wanted to know what makes this multi-crop farm tick.

We had the opportunity to listen to the history of the organisation from some members of the management, as well as drive around.

I was completely gobsmacked.

Sitting on 200,000 acres, the 47-year-old farm currently employs 4,100 people, has nine educational institutions for its employees children (ranging from day care centres to kindergarten, primary to secondary schools), a healthcare centre with ambulances, housing for staff, electricity independently sourced from geothermal energy and roads the company has built and tarmacked for itself.

Paying an impromptu visit to one of the schools, we found it of top quality, trained nurses taking care of the babies in the nearby clean and well maintained day care centre.

My impression from the entire visit was that, things work there like the clock. It is as close to an independent entity as one can get, a mini-government of its own.

An Oserian Flower Farm attendant sorts roses.

An Oserian Flower Farm attendant sorts roses in the establishment. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The mindset there is not that of “naomba serikali” but more of, “I have so much for myself, what else I can do for serikali?”

Reading the The Flowering Dutchman, a memoir about the life of the founder Hans Zwager and his wife June, gave me so much more respect for human ingenuity, creativity and perseverance.

There were ten particular points that stayed with me.

1. Fortune finds you on the road

When Johannus (Hans) Zwager found himself penniless and with a family to support in 1956, he was forced to jump into business, doing the only thing he knew: setting up a cleaning company.

With time he moved to selling chemicals and then only by chance, started planting flowers when he found himself with a large ranch and no idea what to do with the land.

He didn’t set out with a ‘Grand Plan’ for a flower empire but embraced serendipity along the way.

2. Don’t be afraid to go down untrodden paths

The couple carried a diametrically opposite world view of the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ mentality.

Setting up a flower farm in East Africa in the late 60s appeared to many to be the height of madness, if not out and out folly.

As one of the managers we spoke to put it: “30 years ago the Dutch thought Kenya had no hope of ever growing and selling flowers to Holland but we now are.”

Today, Oserian Development Company Ltd supplies flowers globally to every continent in the world, apart from South America.

Oserian Flower Farm greenhouse attendant tends to carnations.

Oserian Flower Farm greenhouse attendant tends to carnations. Oserian is the largest Carnation exporter worldwide. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

3. Work as hard as if the devil were chasing you

One thing that stuck out at me throughout the book was where Hans talks about his daily schedule in his early years when the farm has still not taken off.

Hans would be up and out of the house by 5am, driving as far as Arusha and Moshi in search of clients, returning home after 10pm.

4. Expect bumps on the road

Like any other farmers or entrepreneurs’ journey, the Zwager’s was not smooth sailing.

One of the first hiccups that they encountered – dealing with a dishonest middleman – nevertheless ended up being one of the best things that happened.

Much as the couple were thrown in the lurch by having to part ways with this middleman, this departure is what opened doors for the company to finally flourish as they could now access the markets directly.

5. Hire good brains and put up systems
Our walk around the premises convinced us that in each department, from the management to the schools, the people knew what they were doing, were on top of their game, had the answers to questions we asked at the tips of their fingers.

The founder is now retired but the systems in place run by his family and highly qualified folk working for him, ensure the company’s strength is still in place.

6. Take care of your people
This is was the most powerful thing of it all for me, seeing how their employees are taken care of.

No stress about who is going to take care of the kids while at work, no arduous journey kilometres away to take the children to school (the day care centres exist; the schools are not far from the houses).

One of the researchers I was with remarked that she’d never heard people speak so positively and effusively of their place of work and truly seem to mean it.

7. Be clear on your target market
Oserian grows its flowers strictly for export, where a ready market of people who appreciate flowers exists.

Not only does this give them a ready customer base with the hundreds of thousands in more affluent countries, it also gives the company certain advantages such as reduced tax on imported farm equipment.

A flower farm employee attends to flowers in the company's greenhouse.

A flower farm employee attends to flowers in the company's greenhouse. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

8. Re-invest, re-invest, re-invest

I noticed keenly in the book that even when the company began earning good money in the early years, the founder was not using it to splurge on unnecessary luxuries.

It was only almost 20 years after the company was on its feet that he started taking the luxurious holidays all over the world. In the early years, much of the money was poured back to growing, expanding, experimenting and maintaining.

9. Set up your own outlets to make your product more accessible

Not content to just supply to supermarkets in Europe, the couple also opened two retail outlets, one in Holland, another in UK.

This serves not just them but suppliers from other African countries including Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In addition, finding challenges accessing the market via the Holland flower auctions, they set up an auction in East Africa with radical methods of showcasing flowers that have since been taken up at other auctions.

10. Realize your competitive advantage

One of the things that kept on coming up during the conversation with the Oserian team was the fact that being based in Africa has given them a competitive advantage over the European flower farms due to the weather and climate.

With the sun out virtually all year round, African farmers can plant all year round and not incur the costs of artificial heating and lighting that those in the Northern Hemisphere have to shoulder when they plant in the winter.

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Kingwa Kamencu is an author, thespian and journalist. Email [email protected]