19 February 2013

Uganda: When a Flower Fails to Blossom

In a corridor of one of the buildings at Watoto church on Kampala road, Francis Ssemogerere sits on a stool staring at his merchandise of flowers.

They include bouquets ready to go, and rose stalks on display - to be designed as the customers fancy. Ssemogerere smiles brighter than his roses as customers approach his stall, but frowns when they evade him without uttering a word.

"I will not lie to you; right now, we [flower sellers] are actually struggling," he tells me.

A small dealer, Ssemogerere, gets his supplies from the big flower companies. He says when the sales are poor, the dealers do not buy from the growers. While retailers like Ssemogerere are feeling the pinch, it is nowhere near the hard times that the bigger companies in the flowers industry are facing.

In less than five years, at least six flower companies have closed shop. Elma Roses, in Mukono district, is the latest. Managing Director Lawrence Kazibwe told the media closure was inevitable as the business was anything but rosy.

This dim view is shared by Harvar Florists' Costa Kazibwe.

"We have been hit hard," Kazibwe says. "I have a feeling if something is not done, many more companies will continue to leave the industry."

Kazibwe says the flowers are bought in seasons like summer - between June and August - which is usually the holiday season, and during the Christmas period. For the past few years, the number of people who buy flowers has been low.

"Even some companies asking for deliveries from abroad have reduced on the amount of flowers they ask for," Kazibwe told The Observer.

In Uganda, the popular flower exports include chrysanthemum cuttings, roses and gerberas, while the major markets are the Netherlands and France. Since the advent of the Euro zone crisis sometime in 2009, some of the importers of Ugandan flowers have bowed out or cut sales and costs to stay afloat.

Figures from the Uganda Export Promotion Board, the institution charged with promoting Uganda's exports, tell a different story, though. The figures show that in 2011, Uganda exported 5,765 tonnes of flowers worth $30.6 million. This represented a 37% increase compared to 2010, when 3,472 tonnes worth $22.4 million were exported.

Indeed, Juliet Musoke, executive director of the Uganda Flower Exporters Association, says the situation is not as bad as some players make it to be. "I have no comment about the companies that have closed," she says. "We still have a good number of players in the business. And I think the situation is not so bad," she told The Observer.

However, some industry players blame the sector's predicament on bad weather and the Eurozone crisis. Others say expensive imported inputs such as chemicals and fertilizers, fluctuations in the foreign exchange market and high interest rates on the loans have made matters worse. Yet, in the midst of all this, the government has not helped much.

"We have a government that gives incentives to other companies. The government should really come out and rescue us," says Kazibwe.

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