During lockdown we stopped buying cut flowers, sending ripple effects along global supply chains and impacting millions of livelihoods.
Flowers have the power to comfort us, lift our mood and brighten our home. They also represent a €15bn (£14bn/$18bn) global industry that supports millions of people who grow, transport and sell them.
But as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020 and the world went into lockdown, florists closed their doors, while shoppers prioritised rice over roses and beans over begonias.
As a result, the EU cut flower market lost €1bn (£900m/$1.2bn) in the first six weeks of lockdown, according to Union Fleurs, the international flower trade association. Few in the industry were spared the impacts, from farm workers in Africa to top florists in London.
“Spring and summer are the main seasons for events, weddings and hospitality, so for florists and growers that specialise in these, it’s been a major disaster,” says Sylvie Mamias, secretary general of Union Fleurs.
“The traumatic moment was Friday, 13 March when the Dutch auctions collapsed,” she says. Demand at Royal Flora Holland auction house near Amsterdam, which normally imports and exports 40% of the world’s cut flowers, went “completely flat”.
In the UK, where most people buy flowers from supermarkets rather than florists, sales didn’t entirely flatline. But then lorries started to back up across Europe and many passenger flights that normally transport flowers from farms in Africa and South America were grounded.
“These countries lost their connection to their markets,” says Mamias. “Growers in Africa in particular have really taken the hit.”
The loss of sales was so serious in some countries that the Fairtrade Foundation described the unfolding situation in Kenya – which supplies one-third of all roses sold in the EU – as a “humanitarian crisis”. Kenya’s 100,000 flower farm workers are generally paid low wages and therefore vulnerable to sudden losses of income, says Anna Barker, senior supply chain and programme manager for flowers at the Fairtrade Foundation.
“April was devastating – flower exports from Kenya dropped 85%,” says Barker. “By May, 50,000 people had lost their jobs and 2 million people’s livelihoods were indirectly affected. A lot of flower farms were having to reduce worker time to 50%. We had similar reports of workers laid off in Uganda.”
Since the easing of lockdown restrictions, consumer sales have started to recover. Sales are back to about 70%, according to the Kenyan Flower Council, helped by the Kenyan government stepping in to get flights moving again.
“There are still issues and farms are generally employing fewer workers, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Barker.
There are also other bright spots, says Mamias. For some time, florists have struggled to break into online sales and appeal to younger customers, but the pandemic has caused a surge in e-commerce and interest from new generations recognising the benefits of nature.
“It has been transformative – [the move to online] was going to happen in the next five years, but it happened in two months,” says Mamias. “Lockdown has been a great opportunity for people to rediscover the benefits of flowers.”
It has also triggered a discussion in the sector about local versus global supply chains, the environmental footprint of transporting flowers using planes, and the vulnerabilities in the chain.
“There have been lessons learned and I think it will make us more sustainable and resilient in the long run,” says Mamias. “The flower sector is still here and that is incredible.”
Research into making the sector more resilient in the UK – including farm diversification, kitchen gardens and shipping routes – is also now part of a cross-industry collaboration between the Fairtrade Foundation, retailers and the Department for International Development.
“The resilience of the farms to help their workers was amazing,” says Barker. “Many tried to keep their employees and supplied food and PPE – but our main question now is how can we make sure this crisis never happens again.”
One flower business looking at how it can come back stronger is Tambuzi Flower Farm in the rainy foothills of Mount Kenya, around 180 kilometres (111 miles) north of Nairobi.
The 22-hectare (54-acre) farm is the biggest employer within a 30km (19-mile) radius. Normally Tambuzi Flower Farm exports flowers – mainly roses – to 60 countries worldwide. With a large number of workers to consider, the management was quick to act when the pandemic hit.
“We knew something was wrong around Valentine’s [Day] and started looking strategically at what we could do,” says Christine Shikuku, the farm’s human resources and environment manager.
“We immediately cleared 10 hectares of gypsophila flowers and planted food crops. We had 500 employees and so we prepared for the worst. In March and April, orders were at zero, so we had to harvest and dump tonnes of flowers.”
Workers who would normally have been working on the flower crop planted beans, maize, potatoes, kale, onion and tomatoes in the cleared plot. Come June, when staff were on a 50/50 work rotation to save money, the vegetables were ready to harvest and were made available to all employees.
“It was a big relief,” says Shikuku. “The area around here is very arid and it’s hand-to-mouth. So our vegetable garden really saved the workers.
“This whole process has also brought us together because it has been the whole team from directors to workers trying to keep the farm going.”
Now, Tambuzi’s managers are thinking to the future. The farm’s roses are high-quality event flowers, and with large gatherings still banned across much of the world, sales are still only at about 55-60% of pre-pandemic levels.
“We have to start thinking about diversifications,” says Shikuku. “We have been reliant just on flowers and if we hadn’t moved to food crops I don’t know where we would be now.”
Now the focus is on building resilience, and the farm is considering enterprises that it could incorporate into the flower operations, including livestock that could generate income, help fertilise the soils and reduce input costs.
In south London, one of the UK’s most sought after events florists is also finding community through flowers.
Simon Lycett and his team of 13 are known for their creations at royal weddings and exclusive venues including Hampton Court Palace, the Royal Opera House and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Tens of thousands of pounds of business normally passes through his company each month, but since lockdown he’s not had a single event.
“We did £400’s worth of flowers between March and August,” says Lycett. “I’ve had to make redundancies of people who have worked with me for 10 years. I feel utterly helpless and for a long time I felt like I’d let them down.”
In such difficult times, Lycett, and others in the event business, have come together. “It’s been extraordinary seeing how different business sectors have become community focused,” he says. “As florists we are supporting each other and can at least ring up for a coffee and chat.”
He has also used his flowers to support his own and other people’s mental health with live Instagram videos from his garden during lockdown.
“I am very lucky to have a garden and we now are all aware more of the benefits of nature,” he says. “I’ve always said flowers knock the rough edges off life.”
Lycett is now pouring his efforts into other projects, including presenting a floral competition TV series for HBO Max. Meanwhile, he hopes the government will provide help to the events industry, which employs around 300,000 people.
The Covid-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves through the global cut flower business, and some businesses will not survive. But through the challenges, people are pulling together to bring the sector back more diverse, sustainable, and resilient.
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