May 6, 2006

Ethiopia’s flowers grow into new forex earner

By Linda Muriuki and Arnold Temple

NAZRET, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Inside Jobera Flowers' vast
greenhouses, there are rows of rose buds ready for harvest and
destined to brighten rooms in faraway Europe.

The Jobera farm, about 90 km (56 miles) south of Ethiopia's
capital Addis Ababa, is one of the most successful in a
thriving industry that is helping to diversify the country's
coffee-dependent economy.

The Horn of Africa country, which prides itself on being
the birthplace of coffee, earns about $20 million annually from
flowers, according to the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and
Exporters Association (EHPEA).

It is still a paltry amount compared to the $334 million it
earned last crop year from sales of coffee, its main export
commodity. But given the rate of growth in the flower industry,
it could soon catch up -- good news for an economy that has
been ruled by fluctuating coffee prices for many years.

"Ethiopia will rank as the second or third (biggest
exporter) in the world in the next two to three years, I think
this will be the major supply for the whole world," said Mike
Asres, owner of Jobera Flowers.

Despite having no experience in growing blossoms for sale,
Asres decided to risk savings worth $3.1 million and took out a
$2.4 million loan when a close friend told him Ethiopia's
climate was ideal for the lucrative industry.

In 2000, after 25 years of a relatively comfortable life in
the United States, he set up one of the first commercial flower
farms in Ethiopia.


Like Asres, many local farmers are pouring their savings
into flowers and foreign investors -- from the Netherlands,
Germany, India and Israel -- are also buying up land for farms.

The government has sought to entice investors with
incentives, including an improved investment code, five-year
tax holiday, duty-free import of machinery, and by leasing land
out at just $18 per hectare per year.

The plan appears to be working -- 70 new farms have sprung
up in the last eight years, including Tsegaye Abebe's on the
outskirts of the capital.

Just a year ago, Tsegaye took over the four-hectare
(10-acre) piece of fallow land and planted beds of roses. Now,
he has a thriving farm and he wants to quadruple its size in
the next couple of years.

There is so much demand for his products that he rarely
gets time off to spend with his two young daughters.

"When I come home late they are asleep, when I leave early
they are asleep," he said.

Growing a flower business is not always a bed of roses as
industry pioneer Asres found out.

There were no examples to learn from in Ethiopia, so he had
to make expensive weekly educational trips to neighboring
Kenya, which ships out more than 88 million tonnes of cut
flowers worth about $264 million every year, and is the biggest
cut flower supplier to the lucrative European market.

"When we started this farm, this was one of the first three
rose farms in Ethiopia, it was very difficult for us because we
didn't have any point of reference to learn from," Asres said
as workers carted away hundreds of blooms in plastic pails.

Jobera, which is 6,500 meters (21,320 ft) above sea level,
exported 36 million roses in 2005 and employs 1,200 workers.
Most of them were unemployed before the farm opened.

According to EHPEA, Ethiopia ships out 70 tonnes of flowers
every day but the volume is growing and exporters now have to
charter daily flights to Europe in addition to using regular
scheduled flights.

Ethiopia is keen to advertise that flights from its capital
reach European auctioneers two hours earlier than those from
Kenya, which means blossoms stay fresher longer.

"We are literally growing on a monthly basis," said Samson
Sebehatu of the EHPEA. "We are negotiating with other operators
on cargo capacity to take out more and more (flowers)."