Kenyan roses take armed escorts as growers push for Valentine’s Day

>NAIVASHA, Kenya (AP) – In a country strangled by anger and fear, it is taking armed escorts and emergency airlifts to make sure that Kenya’s most warmhearted export – the rose – arrives in time for Valentine’s Day.

Kenyan flowers – mostly roses – account for a quarter of Europe’s cut flower imports, and Kenyan growers have been pushing to keep exports up for the holiday despite ethnic violence that has paralyzed the East African country.

They’ve chartered planes to embattled western cities, enlisted police to protect flower-truck convoys and made pleading cell phone calls to frightened workers urging them to return.

It seems to be working – European buyers say they haven’t seen a shortage of Kenyan roses. But flower exports require predictability, and if unrest continues, Kenya’s flower industry could quickly follow tourism as the next shattered pillar of the economy.

The central town of Naivasha – which grows 60 percent of Kenya’s flowers – was hit last month. Dozens of people were hacked to death and homes were torched in one of many waves of violence since a disputed Dec. 27 election sparked ethnic clashes.

Flower farms were relatively untouched, but no one showed up to pick the roses and hypericum at Wildfire Flowers the next day, or the day after.

“We had to call them … tell them now it’s OK, you can come back to us,” said Ann Mugi, who oversees the warehouse at Wildfire Flowers where flowers are packed for shipping. She tried first by phone, then sent runners out to homes to try in person.

Most flower farms are owned by foreigners, or by Kenyans of European or Asian ancestry who have not been targeted in tribal clashes that have killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 600,000. Industry officials say only one flower farm has set on fire in the entire country.