Kenya's horticultural sector currently ranks as one of the economy’s fastest growing industries, the third largest foreign exchange earner after tourism and tea. This has been reflected in virtually year on year expansion in fruit, vegetable and flower exports, a trend that saw the industry rise 31% in 2003 with total exports reaching 130 000 tonnes in 2003. Top on the list of fresh horticultural crops exported annually are cut flowers, French beans, runner beans, snow peas, Asian vegetables, pineapples, mangoes, tomatoes, paw paws and passion fruit.
The history of the export of fresh horticultural produce from Kenya dates back to the period before independence when Kenya, then a British colony, was required to contribute to the running of the budget for East Africa. After independence the industry continued to flourish with exports starting to go to Europe and thus opening up the potential for Kenya in the export market.
Overall exports to the European market started to increase in the 1970's with the Netherlands being the largest importer, taking a 71 per cent share by volume, with most distributed through the auction system. Next came the United Kingdom on 20 per cent, followed by Germany on 6 per cent. Success can be attributed to Kenya's ability to provide high quality products on a year-round basis, backed by daily airfreight arrivals to key destinations.
Although Kenya is on the equator, considerable differences in altitude allow a great variety of climatic conditions from the hot coastal plain up to the cool highlands. A temperate climate prevails above 1500 m where daytime temperatures are from 22 °C - 30 °C and night - time from 6 °C - 12 °C. In the temperate area there are two distinct rainy seasons - "long rains" from March to June and "short rains" during September and October. Rain days are restricted to 60 - 80 days so there is excellent radiation most of the year - ideal for the year-round growing of quality flowers without the necessity of green house conditions. Nairobi, the capital city, is a major hub and is very well served by major airlines and charter operators giving easy airfreight access to the European markets and from there to the rest of the world. Currently, Japan route has two major airlines that have made direct freight possible and cheaper.
Kenya has seen phenomenal growth in its exports of cut flowers recently even taking into account mounting competition from Colombia, Ecuador, Israel, India, China, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda. The Kenya flower industry like the horticultural sector is continuing with its rapid growth and in the year 2000 saw another 3.6 percent increase in exports to a record 38,000 tonnes. The export of roses continued to dominate the export market with sales up from 24.6 million kilograms in 1999 to 28.4 million in 2000, a 15 percent increase.
The Kenyan flower industry has gone through a significant maturing since 1990. Kenya's export volume has continued to grow from 14,000 tons in 1990 to 39,000 tons in 2000 to 61,000 tons by 2003 and 81,217 tons in 2005. This is depictive of a significant growth in the volume of flower exports. The value of flower exports has risen from about 1billion KSHS in 1990 to 7billion in 2000 to 16 billion (Kenya shillings) in 2003 and to a record 22.8 billion (K-shillings) in 2005.
In the agricultural sector, floriculture in Kenya is the second foreign exchange earner after tea bringing in more than $250million per annum and employing 50,000-70,000 people directly and more than 1.5 million indirectly.
The sub sector has also recorded the highest growth in volume and value of cut flowers exported every year. It has had a growth rate of 35% annually in the last 15 years. The area under roses is expected to keep increasing every year.
The flower industry has maintained an average growth of 20% per annum. The year 2005 saw the industry move to a record high of 81,217 tonnes. In the last year’s figure with the Roses accounting for 61,072 tonnes up from 45,668, Carnations 2603 tonnes up from 1,476 tonnes, Statice 438 tonnes down from 563 tonnes, Alstromeria 949 tonnes, up from 767 tonnes and the others were 16,155 tonnes.
In the year 2006, the rose flower was the top Kenyan variety, leading in exports by 74% while Mixed bouquets was 10%, Alstromeria 5% Carnations 3%, Alstro 2% Statice (3%)and Veronica (1 % each) while other varieties account for the remaining 6 per cent.
The other Cut Flowers from Kenya include mixed bouquets, Arabicum, Delphinium, Eryngium, Gypsophila, Lisianthius, Ornithogalum, Veronica, Asiatic Hybrid lilies, Oriental lilies, Zantedeschia, Tuberose, Carthamus, Birds of paradise, Birds of Ireland, Helichonia, Molybdick, and Ferns. Also number of Ornamentals are propagated in Kenya and exported as cuttings abroad for pot production.