Mayhews London Labour and the London Poor (1861) describes street folk of the fast expanding capital city with flower sellers as the “aristocracy” of the street; their elevated status due to a combination of wealthy clients and the need to own sheds to store and carts to move their fragile crop avoiding, in his delightful phrase, “concusive” transit – he may have been anticipating the last mile in Chennai! Mayhew describes in some detail a supply system that, by the end of the 19th century, was copied in the major US cities with horicultural growing centres located within or close to the major centres of population of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

By the 1950s, the expansion of the interstate highway system facilitated transportation of cut flowers over longer distances with nurseries expanding further afield in Colorado; Denver and California.  Today, horticulture has taken advantage of the rocket science of logistics to stretch supply lines into the most remote areas of the globe. It could act as a catalyst to transform Agriculture still further as well as being a testing house for green supply chains along the way. Here’s the story …

Flower power is big business

Today, the World cut flower market is worth close to $50 billion annuallly – the rose variety alone generating $10 billion – with logistics and ever more sophisticated supply chains enabling farmers in places like Columbia, Kenya and Ethiopia to become major players. This is big business in the developed world with a massive impact at the other end of the development scale. For example, in Kenya, horticulture generates $110 million exports per year and employs an estimated 500,000 people; 75% of whom are women earning up to $30 per month.  

In the centre of much of the action sits the Aalsmeer flower auction in Holland. Launched in 1911, this high tech marvel generated €1.75 billion annual turnover in 2007 – handling over 21 million cut flowers a day; 16,000 varieties per year from a 1 million square metre warehouse connected by 16 kms of underground railway. This is big business and Aalsmeers 23 companies have significant links with markets all over the world – where the story is all too often one of waste with up to 30% of produce rotting on the way to market.

Time to market is crucial for a product that cannot tolerate major fluctuations in temperature (32 to 35F for flowers; 40 to 45F for foliage), humidity, air quality in transit or anything other than careful handling and dedicated storage – flowers cannot be mixed with fruit and vegetables. Go deeper back into the supply chain starting with pre-harvest crop selection; a sensitive environment and training of local farmers.

Then, we have a major set of challenges for those who work the crops. It is estimated that up to 10% of workers exposed to pesticides suffer some form of health issue and in Kenya alone such exposure to pesticides is the cause of up to 700 deaths a year.

Horticulture is up there with remittances as a source of economic survival and even sustainable growth for Columbia generating more than $650 million turnover; Ecuador $200 million; Israel $185 million and Kenya – where it is the second largest foreign earning cluster and has carved 25% of the EU flowers market – the value to the economy is $110 million. * In fact, Columbia, Ecuador , Kenya and Holland grow over 80% of the world’s cut flowers while Germany, UK, the USA, Holland and France buying 75% of global production. 

Each geographical area has a different agenda to grow the business.

  • Asia Pacific. There is a major need for improved pre/post harvest infrastructure and improved yields. Government policy is needed to get behind improved export efforts.
  • China. Again, infrastructure is key – especially from the Western provinces. Export has reached over $150 million in recent years and can climb further as more land comes under horticulture.
  • Africa. So much to do. Kenyas recent political turmoil scuppered progress but the industry seems to be back on stream. Throughout Africa there is a lack of technology, training and handling equipment and techniques need to be overhauled for this added value industry to take firmer root.
  • General Policy. Perishable products are especially vulnerable to inefficient border crossings and corruption such that this remains a major barrier to trade.
  • Organic products. Estimated at $16 billion per annum, organics are growing at a fast pace as concerns on pesticides are generating significant negative public reactions.

And then, through the push on green supply chains there is a strong movement to reduce the carbon footprint and reduce dependence on stretched global supply chains – horticulture is responsible for up to 10% of the airline industry turnover. This will see greater development of hydroponics and other techniques that could engineer a dramatic shift back to the very cities that currently buy their flowers from all over the world. Have a look at this video by Arups on retrofitting Manchester for sustainability. There are many examples such as Jerusalen, Bogota, Columbia where gardens built of recycled materials including wooden crates from auto parts shops reduce the setting up of each square metre plot to just $5.

It is not just about the reduction of air miles for flowers. These horticulture led ideas can have a massive impact in inner city areas where – despite a high density of fast food restaurants and convenience stores – there has been a near total collapse in the consumption of fruits and vegetables by low income citizens; so prone to obesity. In fact, nutritional insecurity or the lack of reliable and consistent access to healthy foods is a major issue and can generate widespread health problems and related costs. One US study concludes that 12.2 % of the State of Michigan are classified as having nutritional insecurity. There are many companies tackling this head on – in New York gotham greens are investing over $1.4 million to grow 30 tonnes of fruits and vegetables on city roof tops. This is the developed world. Think of this position as population climbs from the current 6 billion to an estimated 9 billion by 2050 with over 75% living in urban settlements.     

Horticulture – like previous Posts on honey, leather, carpets, cotton and dairy – is one of those supply chains that demonstrate how logistics can transform outcomes and generate an improved quality of life. Simply modal jugaad or links to technology such as hydroponics can reverse the supply chain like the narrative in Martin Amis’s novel Times Arrow – where the action goes backwards – to return us to urban centres and ways to transform choice and supply through local produce. These approaches can eliminate the problems of seasonality without recourse to global sourcing; growing the solution in your own back yard. In addition, they can deal with soil quality and contamination from far smaller plots than are viable elsewhere.

Flowers have long been the currency of celebration and well being. Maybe this is the opportunity to use them as a logistics catalyst in the developing world to reduce carbon footprint and transform performance in collateral industries with the know-how that horticulture can offer. In parallel, horticulture can play a role in developing countries for a different reason – a shift of agriculture from survival economics to providing nutritional security for a local market and, the chance to develop an added value agri processing industry. After all, whilst India sees no more than 3% of the harvest moving to an added value Agri Processing industry; Brasil manages to move 70% of the harvests to branded higher value products. Or, as the retrofit of Manchester illustrates, inner city growing is a real possibility to add to the lexicon that horticultural logistics can add to transform outcomes in emerging and developing economies.  

* Figures taken from all over the place – all numbers relating to 00’s.