Valentine’s Day is usually boom time for flower companies. But in February 2014, just as sales were expected to soar with the expression of affection through flowers on the quintessential lovers’ day, Karuturi , Kenya’s biggest flower farm and a significant player in the global export market, was placed under receivership.
Three years later, as another Valentine’s Day approaches on Tuesday, hopes of revival are a withering prospect and hundreds of families that once formed a thriving community revolving around the Naivasha-based company are living in squalor.
The vast flower farm lying along the idyllic Lake Naivasha, was a workplace and home for at least 3,000 staff and their families. Social amenities such as schools, hospital, a stadium that was the home ground of a top-flight football club and an entertainment hall were all part of the ecosystem. Then there were the vibrant church services and crusades at Jesus Revival Centre that were always packed with frenzied worshippers.
Children were born in the hospital run by the company, educated in the flower firm’s schools and some were lucky to fly out of the country on scholarships by the company.
But as the Nation team toured trading centres like Kwa Serah, Kwa Muhia, Kamere and Housing – whose rise and fall are intertwined with Karuturi’s – it is clear that these are tough times for the tens of families that still hopefully live on the farm.
Ms Margaret Wambui has lived in the farm for 19 years yet she says there are many more people who came there in the 1980s, years before her, and have never left. At a time like this in the past, she would earn extra money working overtime in the grading department to help meet Valentine’s Day demand for flowers, mostly for export to Europe.
Now, as she holds to her three-month old baby, she is unemployed and broke – unable to go back to her rural home because all she was paid after almost two decades of service was her one-month salary of about Sh9,000. Her wait for a severance package, alongside thousands of others, is like groping in the dark as they do not know when they will be paid.
Ms Wambui lives in Kasarani estate made up of row upon row of about 2,000 rundown houses – many now abandoned – whose neglect is accentuated by the dirty toilets and bathrooms.
A few blocks from Ms Wambui is another mother who confesses to the Nation that she has had to feed her children just once a day because that is all she can afford.
Behind Kasarani estate is a locked gate labelled “Sher Karuturi Hospital”, long closed and with signs like “doctors’ lounge”, “nurses bay”, “radiology” fading in the rotting wood while dusty diagnostic equipment and beds stand stoically.
A distance away are torn greenhouses with rose flowers chocked by weeds. Managers of the neighbouring smaller farms are concerned about the wellbeing of their flowers because the insects that fly from the unattended plants at Karuturi could easily transfer diseases.
Mr Peter Mehta of the neighbouring Crayfish Camp, fears that snakes have found a haven in the bushy greenhouses. The hotel has also suffered from the closure of the farm, and recently had to lay off 40 workers. Mr Mehta says that his hotel had always benefited from hosting officials of various companies, including chemical firms that would come to market their pesticides, and workers who would bring their families to the camp.
Mr Mehta has also become the chairman of the community’s welfare. During the interview, he held envelopes of people who wanted assistance in paying medical bills, school fees and burial expenses.
“I am just from a wake of someone who died, and every day I have had to sit here and talk to people, try to help wherever I can,” he says.
Ms Wambui has to cut short the interview as she hurriedly leaves to join more than 80 others who have congregated at the stadium, complaining to the Member of County Assembly and aspirants to push for the workers’ severance package and a government bailout to revive the farm.
At the stadium, the frustrated workers who had known no other workplace share their heart-wrenching testimonies. One of them, for example, says she had saved more than Sh300,000 in the Sacco but she has been unable to access the money which she needs for her son’s school fees.
So desperate has the situation become that Mr David Kilo, a bird enthusiast who was born and bred in the area, fears that those who once depended on the farm for survival have now turned their fury on nature. The section of lake close to the farm, once so clean you could see the fish beneath it, has become polluted and the poaching of colobus monkey for its skin has increased.
Mr John Nyongesa, who also worked in the farm, says that they had appealed to the Nakuru county government about their plight without success.
The story of the rise and collapse of the horticultural giant that produced a global symbol of love – the rose – reads like a broken marriage after years of neglect.
In 1986, Gerrit and Peter Barnhoon, father and son from Holland, came to Kenya to establish Sher Agencies Limited. Despite having a thriving workforce of about 3,000 people, there were questions on the workers’ living conditions. This was exposed in 1997 when a diarrhoea outbreak led to the hospitalisation of more than 25 people at the Naivasha District Hospital and a private health facility. Several deaths were reported, forcing the government to crack the whip on the flower farms in the area.
After the outbreak, the Barnhoons changed their management style, cementing their relationship with the community and their workers. This included better housing, a well-equipped hospital with various specialists and a school.
There was also a kitchen from which the supervisors’ families would pick food and milk for their families daily.
A state of the art football arena – Old Trafford – was constructed on which a football, netball and volleyball club, funded and sponsored by the farm, practised.
In the evenings, Jacob “Abu” Omondi, who was one of the players, would leave the field to go to the social hall where the company had installed television sets with paid cable television where the workers would watch football matches before leaving to their homes.
At the end of the year, there was Sher Day where workers’ families would meet at the stadium for the whole day to make merry, eat and drink alongside the Barnhoons and later, bonuses for Christmas and a few domestic commodities.
A lot of theories have been fronted about the collapse of the farm: the model of business of providing those social services for free was unsustainable while smaller farms bred their own flowers to meet the changing needs of the company, leaving Sher behind.
The Barnhoons relocated to Ethiopia and in 2007 Sher changed hands to Karuturi, an Indian company. The company grappled with problems since then, ranging from delayed salaries and charges being levied on social amenities that were previously free. The giant flower company turned into a battlefield of strikes, and court cases – mostly involving creditors, culminating into the receivership in 2014 and liquidation orders last year.