opinionBy Bob Kohet
And around 800 million flowers made their way from Kenya's Lake Naivasha region to markets throughout Europe for the Valentine's Day. Flowers are Kenya's biggest export earner, and growers employ more than 70 000 people.
In the US, the 200 million roses shipped for February 14th, came primarily from Columbia, Ecuador and Africa. In the past decade Ethiopia has gone from earning less than a million US Dollars from flower exports, to US$190 million in 2011. South Africa has also become a major player in the flower industry.
Unfortunately, the amount of pesticides, water, fuel, packaging, and chemical preservatives used to keep the flowers in a perfect state on their long journey means the carbon footprint of this industry is not exactly fragrant. Quite frankly it stinks.
The flower business is also notorious for the mistreatment of its workers. Kenya's flower industry is dominated by multinationals who own vast flower farms. They employ thousands of people as temporary workers, housed in very shabby conditions and earning the bare minimum. As a consumer this Valentine's Day, you should have helped by buying flowers that have been sustainably grown.
May for a better picture imagine this: Dust rises on Main Street, Naivasha, Kenya: banks, hotels and houses with verandas are under construction. Sign writers paint advertisements on to whitewashed concrete walls: hardware, driving lessons, hair extensions, Lake Place Night Club. Naivasha is a boom town built on a new gold rush: cut flowers.
As you read this, 25,000 workers are picking roses for Valentine's Day bouquets thousands of miles away.
Greenhouses, each a hectare in size, line the road to Lake Naivasha. On these shores Lord Errol's Djinn Palace hosted the debauchery of the Happy Valley set and Imperial Airplanes seaplanes were a regular sight. Today the road is asphalted smooth and flat so that truckloads of roses will arrive unbruised at Nairobi airport, which has a terminal purpose-built for the export of flowers and vegetables. In 20 years cut flowers have sprung up to join tourism and tea as one of Kenya's biggest employers and exports.
Floriculture is an equation between the life -- or, rather, living death -- of a cut flower, and the time required to get it to market. rail links to London brought the Lincolnshire bulb fields into being; in 1896 a new hall was built at Covent Garden for carnations whistled overnight from the French Riviera.
And in 1969, American entrepreneurs hired a cargo plane to airfreight flowers from Colombia: on the equator roses flower all year round. Today, the international cut-flower trade is estimated at $60 billion a year.
Valentine's Day might be a costly affair for couples, married folk and people looking for a relationship, but it is a financial boon for businesses -- chiefly flower outlets, chocolatiers, specialty gift stores, restaurants and card manufacturers.
Even small businesses and the informal trade sector are jumping on the bandwagon and cashing in on Valentine's Day -- just take a walk down some of Durban's major streets and you will see rows of street traders selling everything from mass-produced Valentine's Day cards and teddy bears to plastic roses and lingerie.
Jerusha Chetty, manager of Lall's Fresh Flowers stall near The Workshop and Durban City Hall, said Valentine's Day week was their busiest period.
"Most of our stock for Valentine's Day is sold the day before, or on the day. We sell about 15 000 mainly red roses, which is several times our normal business. It's about a 50/50 split between special orders and those customers who buy on the day," she said.
"People from all walks of life buy flowers for Valentine's Day, from businesspeople working in the city, to youngsters. They still spend money, despite tough times, going all out to impress their loved ones on Valentine's Day." She said the price of red roses went up ahead of Valentine's Day. Depending on the quality, a single rose could cost between R10 and R20.
Major retailers have also stocked up and even home industries and small businesses are cashed in.
Valentine's Day sales also represent a major post-Christmas busy period for specialist stores such as Cardies and CNA.
The Cardies chain, owned by SA Greetings, did not want to comment on card sales and other items for the occasion. However, according to a report in The Guardian, the US Greeting Card Association said about a billion Valentine's cards were bought throughout the world each year, making it second only to Christmas.
According to Ryan Bacher, managing director of South Africa's biggest online flower retailer, NetFlorist, Valentine's Day gift orders were up 40 percent last year, with some 11 000 orders made nationwide.
"Valentine's Day brings in around 8 percent of our sales for the year... Sales are going well and we expect between 20 and 30 percent growth this year," he said.
Asked about South Africans' spending on Valentine's Day in tough economic times, Bacher said: "People seem to celebrate Valentine's Day no matter the economics of the day. It's a great way to show your love for your wife, girlfriend or someone you hope to court."
Unsurprisingly, red roses were the most popular product sold. He said NetFlorist used around 130 000 red roses for Valentine's Day bouquets and gifting.
"In the 13 years we've been in business, we've never seen anything like it for any single occasion," Bacher said in a report after Valentine's Day last year.