Behind an expansion spree that has seen Bloomingdale Roses Kenya Ltd grow area under production from nine to 38 hectares, is a host of avant-garde innovations that have redefined the business of flower growing and export in Kenya and a dedicated workforce. This is the heartwarming story of a five-year journey that has firmly placed this producer of premium roses on the global map.
On its fifth birthday, the flower company’s General Manager Sunil Chaudhari spoke to HortFresh about actualizing the flower dream, the philosophy that oils the growth of the company, the payoffs in focusing on T-Hybrid roses and the expansion plans moving forward.
Congratulations on your fifth anniversary. It is quite a great achievement. How would you describe the journey and experience since you planted the first rose?
Bloomingdale Roses Kenya Ltd was an idea from the mother company Bobmil, as a diversification plan. We never envisioned it would grow this big. The initial investment which was quite high was in infrastructure like pack houses, post-harvest rooms and fertigation units because we were looking for strong and permanent structures. It made business sense for us and it still does. Because now we are just expanding on greenhouses only, not the buildings. We initially planted the flowers in about nine hectares which has now increased to about 38. We are also proud of the growth in our variety portfolio. We started with six varieties and now we have 31. What we have noticed with our expansion is that our production costs were high at the start but are better absorbed now.
The last five years have been an interesting journey where we have experimented, grown, made strategic decisions and weathered storms. We are happy with the rate at which we have grown.
Your farm has always concentrated largely on T- hybrid roses since inception. What informed this choice and how has been the market response over the years?
The variety selection is dictated by the target market and the climate in the production area. We have always focused on the Auction as our market as it has an appetite for high altitude flowers with larger heads and long stems (approximately 60 to 80 cms) as opposed to direct sales.
Again because we are located at the Equator where we enjoy more sunlight than other parts of the country, we are able to produce bi-colour flowers that attract many buyers in the auction. Our region is famous world over for producing the best bicolour flowers in the world. Because of our ability to supply premium roses, the markets have opened up to our flowers so well. The catch here is to supply quality and be consistent in that supply. We ensure that our flowers are at the auction 365 days a year.
How are you finding the cost of doing business in the country? Which expenses eat into your revenue?
The business environment is tough with many factors beyond our control. The freight charges are the biggest expense as they can take up 60% of gross earnings.
Then there is taxation. Previously, we were charged 16 per cent VAT on some chemicals and fertilizers, but now the policy has been revised and all these inputs are now taxed. This has a significant impact on our growing costs. We are also struggling with the high cost of energy.
Why are freight charges so high?
Unfortunately Kenya does not import much from Europe so cargo planes have to come in empty compared to countries like China or India whose planes, once they offload flowers in Holland, then return with goods. So we pay high rates to compensate the airlines, since they have better yields on alternative routes.
What innovations have you introduced across the production chain and how have they impacted your business?
We have invested heavily in rain water harvesting to water our flowers because the cost of borehole drilling and set up is quite high. We tap water from all greenhouse gutters. Erratic rains due to changing weather patterns means that we cannot also always rely on underground water from boreholes so we need to be innovative. The advantage with rainwater is that you do not have to acidify it since it is like mineral water so we can send it to our greenhouses right away. We have dug numerous water dams for collecting rain water as opposed to one big dam. This is to avoid risks as has been happening elsewhere and with smaller dams we are able to collect more water per surface area.
We also use mulch films in our greenhouses to protect flowers from pests and diseases while maintaining the highest level of hygiene which helps us produce healthy and consistent flowers.
By next year, we intend to introduce solar energy and our aim is to have 80 to 90 per cent of the farm’s operations on solar.
Five years into the flower business, what drives Bloomingdale Roses Kenya Ltd? What is your philosophy as a company?
Our guiding light is to do the best for our customers who believe in what we do. That means that we have to invest time, resources, manpower and passion in our everyday operations without any shortcuts. The priority for our farm is to produce the highest quality roses. We do not pressure our staff to make monstrous number of sales or produce this number of flowers. Of course we are in business and that is a consideration, but the winning formula for our farm is that if we stick to producing quality, demand will automatically follow.
What do you consider the greatest investment and asset for the company?
The workforce. The growth of this flower farm to its current status has been largely driven by our dedicated workers right from top management to those in greenhouses. We see each other as a family whose relationship is built on trust, respect and a sense of togetherness. We have endeavoured to create an open-door policy allowing any staff to come and discuss with us about any issue they might want addressed. We put them first which means we ensure they have what they need at the right time. It is one of the ways we want to appreciate them for their loyalty.
To also cater for their health and welfare, we ensure that no staff works in any chemical laden area for more than two months. We move them to other departments within the farm. This means we continuously invest in training them on other skills. We want to create a holistic employee who can perform in any section of the farm.
Let’s talk expansion. From day one, your business has been growing driven by market demands and internal needs. What are the plans now moving forward?
Right from the start, our top management team has envisioned operating a 100-hectare farm. It was clear that we would endeavor to grow steadily towards this goal. The entire team from the Directors through to the workforce on the ground is committed to making this a reality. Our organic growth can be attributed to hard work and consistency and an unshaken commitment to our people and customers.
From starting off with one employee, we now have over 600 members of staff. We aim for Bloomingdale to be the employer of choice and also like to balance this with a social conscience. Our sincerest hope is to help our employees and the community around us reach new heights.