BY STEVEN MULANDA
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. The illusion that one waits for his chance to come around is a paradox. People eventually get tired of waiting, taking a chance, risking and by the art of resilient, perfect to something worthwhile. This is the amazing story of Shailesh Kumar Rai who after reaching the pinnacles of his career; having served as a managing director for 25 years in the flower industry both in Kenya and India, had this urge to start his own farm and in 2019 opened the doors of Heritage Flowers to the world. The farm’s focus is to create a place of beauty, bounty and balance where people can re-create themselves.
Heritage Flowers is about 3 years old, tell us how has been the journey since you planted the first rose?
It has been an exciting experience. We pride ourselves as a world class farm in Africa, situated in Laikipia County. Our farm is a large-scale professionally managed operation with significant scope for expansion. It covers a combined total of 57 ha, currently producing 12 ha of high quality super intermediate roses, with a plan to expand to a production of 40 ha of roses as well as 12 ha of outdoor spray carnations and other summer flower crops.
Our products are grown on nutritious virgin soil, strictly with our environment in mind, and supplemented by organic fertilizers produced in-house through special method of organic matter production such as vermiculture. The application of such high quality inputs ensures best possible plant growth and plant health in line with our company’s HQ (High Quality) product and production strategy.
What makes Heritage Flowers unique and why did you select the farm location?
Most of the flower farms have been established by business people, who don’t have the experience and the knowledge of running the farms. In my case, I began first of all by gaining experience in the production of roses.
We selected Rumuruti since it is close to the equator thus would enable us achieve bigger head size as compared to other growing zones. The area has abundant sunlight, appropriate diurnal temperatures and vegetative soil conditions; mainly moist, enabling optimum plants growth with very low risk in crop failure.
What informed the choice of the flower segment and how has the market responded to your roses?
The variety selection is dictated by the targeted market and the climate of the production area. Our target was the auction market but we have shifted to direct sales as it has more demand for high altitude flowers with large heads and long stems. Again because of our location; where we enjoy more sunlight than other parts of the country, we are able to produce bi-colour flowers that attract many buyers. This region is famous world over for producing the best bicolor flowers. We continue to experiment, innovate and regularly update our range of flowers so that we remain in competitive demand with our global markets.
Because of our ability to supply high quality roses, the markets have opened up to our flowers so well. The catch is to supply quality and being consistent with the supply. As a grower, to be able to achieve a good production you have to spend time on the crop and understand what the crop wants.
What do you consider the greatest investment and asset for your company?
Our guiding light is to do the best for our customers. 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. The other priority is paying great attention to the welfare of our workers and our winning formula is that when we stick to producing quality, demand will automatically follow.
Our greatest investment is the workforce. The growth of this flower farm to its current status has been largely driven by our 280 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 endeavored to create an open-door policy allowing our 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.
How has Covid 19 impacted your farm?
It caused a little bit of mayhem. Our first production was in January 2020 and the pandemic struck in March. We had the usual challenges of flight because the airlines had been grounded globally, there was little demand of flowers, we had a good chunk of flowers in the field and we had to downsize on labour. After June, business picked up and we had a good produce. Covid was a blessing in disguise to us because initially in the market we didn’t have a name. When the market opened up and people needed flowers, we didn’t have to advertise ourselves because the demand was high and people wanted flowers and most growers didn’t have a crop then.
How is the cost of doing business in Kenya?
Day by day it’s becoming expensive. The labour cost is increasing and with the pandemic all goods and inputs we import have gone up. The freight charges are the biggest expense as they can take up 60% of gross earnings, then there is taxation; previously we were not 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 production cost, bearing in mind we are also struggling with the high cost of energy and many certifications from national to county government.
Where do you envision the future of flower industry in Kenya?
The future is good for the industry. When the pandemic struck most people in Europe began spending time at home. To reduce their boredom and refresh their mind they began buying more flowers. Also, the young generation has started liking flowers and they are busy purchasing them. In the global scenario, the cheapest gift to please a person is chocolate and flowers.