Happy Valentine’s Day guys!
As of this morning, millions of rose stems will be delivered or handed to lovers all around the world in honor of Valentine’s Day. And many of those roses will be flowers grown and shipped out of the flowerbeds of Kenya. As my valentine’s gift to you all, I’ll be sharing the story of Oserian, the biggest flower farm in Africa and what it tells us about the ability for success stories to come out of anywhere as long as there is the will to act, to build and the patience to not give up until success is achieved.
The story of Oserian began with a Dutch World War 2 Marine named Hans Zwager. Already a war veteran at the age of 22, Hans had gone become an entrepreneur in search of new adventures. And in 1969, at the age of 43 he and his wife had built enough resources to purchase an estate in a corner of the world that they had loved for decades, the area around Lake Naivasha, in Kenya with its hundreds of species of birds, hippos and beautiful scenery.
He bought the estate named Oserian, which means ‘Place of Peace’ in the Maasai language. For a man who had seen war, this was his retreat where he found peace, but the ranch itself had a turbulent history. It had been built in 1927 as a Moorish-style castle by the Hollywood actor Cyril Ramsay-Hill for his wife, Molly. It became a symbolic landmark of the Happy Valley era with stories of couple swapping, sex and drugs until Molly ran off with a penniless but handsome aristocrat, Lord Josslyn Hay (22nd Earl of Erroll), who was a notorious womanizer. She got the ranch when she divorced her husband and married Lord Hay, and when she died allegedly of heroin overdose, the house passed to him. Lord Hay however was shot dead by the husband of another socialite whom he was having a very public affair with. By the time Hans Zwager purchased the house, it had become known as a sort of Playboy Mansion, and it took years for them to live down that reputation.
Hans and his wife June started a vegetable farm on the estate and enjoyed their peace and quiet for decades until one day in 1982, a friend visiting from Europe made a life changing suggestion. The flowers, statice, were popular in England at the time, and his friend observed that the weather in Lake Naivasha and the farm Oserian would be perfect for growing statice and then shipping them to England in bulk for the flower shops and all.
Hans took the suggestion and started growing static alongside his vegetables. The orders came pouring in and he began to ship flowers to England weekly. Eventually, he did a little test run of rose cultivation which proved incredibly successful. That was how he started a full blown flower farm in the area, becoming the first of many flower farms to spring up in the area. This was in 1982 when barely anyone would’ve thought some corner of Kenya, East Africa would become a flower hot spot.
Today, the farm has grown to 5,000 acres and processes a million stems of flowers daily. Hans Zwager passed on in 2016 at the age of 90, but his son is continuing the business and legacy. Oserian is currently the biggest flower farm in Africa, and the country Kenya currently is the third largest exporter of roses in the world.
Challenges remain, of course. Africa isn’t the easiest place for freight planes to ply, being that most of the time they have to fly empty into the region since most imports into sub-Saharan Africa are shipped rather than flown in. This means that most freight planes prefer to ply the Europe, Asia route, making it difficult and expensive for countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya to fly items that cannot afford to wait a long time for available flights, like cut rose stems. However, those supply chain issues are being tackled daily, and in my experience, most difficulties like this present opportunities for a creative entrepreneur. So, who knows what solutions will be created over the years.
So from one man, the flower industry in Kenya sprang forth. Today 35% of all flowers sold in the European Union come from Kenya. There are around 130 flower farms in the country, of which a little over half are in the Lake Naivasha area, telling you that business clusters are a natural by-product of the social nature of any human organization. And the industry contributes close to $1bn to the Kenyan economy as of 2016.
So if you received a rose on this valentine’s day, reflect on the fact that there is a good chance one East African country made it possible. Happy Valentine’s, Happy Black History Month and Happy Black Panther week!