A farmer’s journey from subsistence to exporter

Most subsistence farmers remain just that – subsistence farmers. Elizabeth Thande of P.J. Flowers Limited, on the other hand, has defied the odds to earn herself a place among some of Kenya’s most successful flower and fresh vegetable farmers and exporters. How we made it in Africa’s Regina Ekiru caught up with her.

Elizabeth Thande

Elizabeth Thande

How did you get into the horticulture business?

It started as a joke in the 1980s. I began planting French beans and potatoes on a four acre piece of family land after an insurance agency firm I was running failed. In 1988 I ventured into flower farming, initially as an outgrower. I received a visit from some experts from Germany who encouraged me to grow more and better varieties and to consider exporting. I went to the Netherlands where I got the opportunity to network with prospective buyers. When I came back to Kenya there was no turning back. I plunged into the flower export business head on. Today, P.J. Flowers has expanded and runs a 33 acre flower and fresh vegetable farm in Gilgil and Limuru. We employ over 80 people.

Would you describe the flower business as lucrative?

It is lucrative but it also comes with its challenges. The unpredictable weather patterns are a big challenge. We live on hope that tomorrow will be a better day. The cost of production has also been on the rise due to high energy and transportation costs. Excessive taxation and strict labour regulations are also hurdles. Flowers and fresh vegetable farming is not for the faint-hearted. The venture is capital intensive as one has to heavily invest in irrigation, crop protection, cold room and other storage facilities and have well-trained staff to tend to the flowers. We have weathered the storms and today P.J. Flowers makes an annual turnover of about €300,000.

How can the government make your life easier?

The government needs to reduce taxation and ensure farmers have the requisite supplies on time. It should also construct dams and invest in teaching farmers modern farming techniques like water harvesting so as to reduce dependence on rain. We need support to be able to compete with other countries. Competition from countries like Ethiopia, which gives subsidies to its farmers, is a threat. The fact that sales of flowers in the local market is very minimal means that Kenyan producers have no choice but to battle it out with other countries in the international market. The local flower market is yet to pick up.

The government also needs to reduce the cost of doing business. Transportation eats about 60% of our returns. For instance, 30% of flowers exported to the Netherlands are from Kenya, but we do not get good returns because of the high overheads.

Elizabeth Thande (with hat) inspecting her crops.

Elizabeth Thande (with hat) inspecting her crops.

How would you compare farming today with that of the 1980s?

Farming has changed. What initially was just the act of throwing seeds on the ground now involves doing lots of studies, identifying markets, drafting a business plan and working out market strategies.

Any pointers for those interested in farming?

To succeed today you need to be creative, efficient and consistent. Investing in a variety of produce is also important. Do not flood the market with one product. You have to do the math otherwise you will find your production costs are too high and you end up making losses. Do not fear competition; all that matters is quality, not the size of your farm.

What’s next for P.J. Flowers?

We have a new project that is underway, which will involve growing fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers for the Kenyan market to meet the growing demand. I would also like to expand my farm and focus more on quality. I would like my flowers to become the global choice.