Roses and rhinos
Kenya is one of the world’s leading flower exporters. The shores of Lake Naivasha in the central Rift Valley are home to massive farms that produce tens of millions of stems a day destined primarily for shops in Europe. These operations support well over half a million people, and make a major contribution to Kenya’s economy.
And they depend on the availability of clean water. Of course, they are not alone. Resident fishermen and farmers also depend on the lake for their livelihoods, and the native wildlife – including a wide array of water birds, as well as hippos and iconic African species like giraffes, zebras and antelope – depend on a healthy lake as the foundation of a functioning ecosystem.
With business investment, community well-being and biodiversity at stake, it is essential to manage the lake effectively.
“The health of Lake Naivasha isn’t just one sector’s concern, and it isn’t just one sector’s responsibility,” says Robert Ndetei, Manager of WWF’s Lake Naivasha programme. “Businesses, communities and local authorities all have a role to play. And we are seeing that there’s so much to be gained through cooperation.”
Responding to risk
Oserian began as a vegetable farm on the shore of Lake Naivasha in the late 1960s. It has since grown into one of the largest flower farms in the region, with 220 hectares under production. A business of this size – even one committed to sustainability – leaves a significant footprint on the landscape. But this enterprise has emphasized respect for the unique environment of Lake Naivasha from the beginning, says Production Director Hamish Ker.
Yet, in 2009, even a water-efficient operation like Oserian got a scare when a significant drought gripped the Naivasha catchment.
“The drought of 2009 strengthened people’s resolve to manage the precious resource of Lake Naivasha collectively. This is when farms started implementing efficiencies, like stopping overhead irrigation,” says Ker. “This is also when WWF and the government really got active. Everyone realized you can’t win alone. Oserian and a few other responsible water users might be doing well on efficiency, but we didn’t know what all water users were doing. The 2009 drought got everyone concerned. It catalyzed cooperation.”
One example of this new cooperation is a “payment for environmental services” scheme, or PES. Under the plan, the 21 members of the Lake Naivasha Growers’ Group, including Oserian, reward subsistence farmers in the surrounding hills for their efforts to improve the quality and quantity of water reaching the lake.
The growers provide farmers with vouchers for agriculture inputs such as improved seeds and supplements for their livestock. Many also donate tree seedlings to participating farmers to reduce erosion on the hillside properties. “Now we aren’t waiting for crisis. We’re alert and we’re taking action,” says Ker.
Oserian supports a number of philanthropic efforts to improve the quality of life in Naivasha – but the PES scheme isn’t the only one of them, says Linda Munyao, the company’s Environmental & Audit Manager.
“This is business. It’s not charity; it’s an investment. We need Lake Naivasha, so if we ensure the lake is there and healthy tomorrow, we are investing in the future of our business,” says Munyao.
“We see a market advantage to being a sustainable company. First, when buyers know we are environmentally friendly, they give preference to Oserian products. Obviously, then we are able to sell more and do better business. Then, we see other companies wanting to emulate what we are doing, and that’s good for Lake Naivasha and for Kenya. Because it’s no good having just one or two businesses be sustainable – we can’t conserve small areas while the rest is crumbling. So we want others to join with us and engage in eco-friendly business.”
Munyao says Oserian is open to having other growers learn from their experience, whether that’s improving irrigation efficiency, creating wetlands on site to treat wastewater, switching to organic fertilizers, using geothermal energy or breeding predator insects to handle pest bugs.
“If you marry yourself closer to nature, it’s a win-win. Nature has been honing its system for millennia. So, it’s going forward by going back to the past. We’re more efficient and cost effective, the plants are healthier and it’s a better working environment,” says Ker.
The Lake Naivasha Growers’ Group is a forum for sharing best practices, promoting conservation and – because it is a business group – ensuring the commercial viability of the region.
“The growers have been effective in advocating for better management of the lake in a way that WWF alone could never be,” says Ndetei. “They make a compelling economic argument, and WWF offers the conservation science. Together, we have gained the attention of the government. But more than their attention, we have gained their trust. The Kenyan government has created a local coordination unit, and is now funding and implementing policies to manage Lake Naivasha sustainably.”
What about the rhinos?
Oserian’s management is aware that the company’s mere presence in the Rift Valley landscape presents responsibilities and opportunities that extend beyond roses and carnations. The 18,000-acre Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary is home to 15 white rhinos, alongside healthy populations of buffalos, zebrass – including the threatened Grevy’s zebra – giraffes, antelope, gazelles, warthogs and leopards.
For Ker, the sanctuary embodies the company’s mantra, “conservation through trade.”
“We’ve got to where we are through trade. Without successful trade, we would not be able to develop better farming practices and we could not support wildlife conservation – you could say we are natural champions in safeguarding nature for future generations,” he says.