I love cut flowers. To bring a vase of flowers into a committee meeting lifts spirits. In late February, after a long and difficult winter, small bunches of daffodil buds appear in grocery stores and I buy one to take home and watch them bloom, with their promise of spring. I don’t think much about where they come from, though I know it is not Philadelphia. Somewhere further south, blessed with a more temperate climate.
During the worst of the volcanic dust crisis, when I was happily stranded for an extra week in Ireland, I heard stories of misery; of people stranded at airports without funds or other assistance. And I heard of Kenyan cut flowers, destined for Europe, having to be destroyed because they could not be flown north.
This week, I saw where many of those flowers are grown – under plastic sheeting near to Lake Naivasha, in the fertile Kenyan rift valley. Lake Naivasha has the distinction of being Kenya’s largest airport for a while. Between 1937 and 1950 BOAC flying boats ran a service from London to serve the large expatriate community that had settled there. Another of the lake’s distinctions is that it has fresh water, while many of the other lakes in the area are alkaline because of the volcanic activity. So the lake’s fresh water is used for irrigation and it turns out to be a perfect growing place for flowers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a $360 million industry. Flowers can be picked early in the morning and be in Europe later that day.
$360 million is a useful sum to flow into the Kenyan economy. But there is a price to pay – not only with the impact of road and air transportation on the planet, but also with the pesticide and fertilizer runoff into Lake Naivasha. I have been told that even with the distance and air freight, the carbon footprint of Lake Naivasha’s flowers on the world is less than if they were grown in heated greenhouses in northern Europe. I have no way of measuring. But I know that there are costs as well as benefits to economic development and the spreading of a little happiness to a cold northern hemisphere. We are interconnected in so many ways.