A walk through Panda Flowers

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Igal Elfezouaty, Managing Director, Panda Flowers

“When you pick a bunch of flowers you are not only brightening your day, you are also supporting a developing country by creating employment and in turn, improving someone’s life”,  Igal Elfezouaty, managing director, Panda Flowers

 BY CATHERINE RIUNGU

catherine@hortinews.co.ke

Nairobi July 6, 2016 .Flower farming is a long term sustainable venture, greenhouses typically have a 30-year lifespan, “If I had any doubts about the sustainability of our business model, I would certainly not have invested in such a business, especially in an area that is perceived to have scarce resources, namely water”.   These are the sentiments of Igal Elfezouaty the managing director of Panda Flowers, one of the finest flower growing establishments in Naivasha, Kenya’s main flower  growing zone, commenting on the perception created mostly by negative media reports.

The flower industry in Kenya has been in the news mostly for all the wrong reasons. The sector has been blamed for shrinking levels of Lake Naivasha- with accusations that farms extract excess water from the lake for irrigation. They have also been accused of exploiting workers by exposing them to dangerous chemicals, underpaying and overworking them in inhumane conditions and polluting the environment.

But a visit to the 50-acre Panda Flowers gives a totally different picture. Located within the Flower Business Park, the farm thrives on the strength of a workforce that is visibly proud of being part of the business.  The farms name was chosen to connect the farms’ founders with the environment that needs protection.

Panda is a vertically integrated flower outfit specializing in roses that are packed at source and sold to direct markets in Europe and the United States. “Packing at source, in a buyer’s sleeve and strapping a flower food sachet on the bouquet adds value to our flowers, creating more jobs here and attracting niche markets”, Igal says.

“A flower is handmade; grown, sorted and shaped with a lot of human interaction. It is the people (work force) who make Panda what it is”, Igal says with a tinge of satisfaction.  “Flowers create joy and it is a beautiful feeling to create joy at the farm and to know that when consumers buy the flowers they too share that feeling”, he says.   It’s a great business to be in.

Panda Flowers is a winner of the Kenya National Farmers Awards (2013) large fully commercialized farms category, on the strength of an elaborate Corporate Social Responsibility program, according to the Ministry of Agriculture that adjudicated over the process.

Panda Flowers was selected among some 12 flower farms globally to participate in the Floralife Spotlight Program that sought to connect buyers with growers, to make the consumers appreciate the effort that goes into producing a flower. Says Igal, “It is not easy to be selected or to be called by name; it comes from hard work, and we at Panda are humbled to be recognized”.

He says that the farm has gone the extra mile of what is expected socially and environmentally, a development that has seen seven international labels rubberstamp its operations.  “We are always looking for new ways to motivate our workers and uplift their living standards,” he says.

The farm has employed 900 permanent workers, with an estimated 4000 people indirectly benefiting from its operations and additional businesses that supply the products and services required in the production chain.

‘This is something buyers need to know. When they make a conscious decision to purchase a flower grown in Kenya they in turn are supporting the livelihood of many people allowing them to live better lives by creating much needed employment”, he adds.

As a Fair Trade certified farm, the premiums earned on sales are being invested in workers and community welfare projects. “We do this to improve lives, and in some cases like the Naivasha Children’s Shelter, which is located adjacent to the farm, return some dignity to humanity”, he says.

Panda actively supports an orphanage in Naivasha, where street children are rehabilitated, giving them a home, education and training.

The farm runs a bursary scheme to support the workers’ children secondary education and has supported many schools in Naivasha by building classrooms.

Through a well planned /organized staff welfare program, the farm has established a posho mill and a consumer shop where workers get daily basic food supplies.  The dairy unit compliments the unit where superior cattle breeds are kept on a modern zero-grazing system that supplies staff with milk. The farm has a clean drinking water system where the water is purified and packed.

Panda also runs a disabled workers program, where it has employed deaf workers who have their own chicken-rearing unit for eggs and meat.  Some workers have been trained in sign language so that they can help the deaf to intermingle with the rest.

Proceeds from the joint body programmers are ploughed back to improving the projects, and it is the workers who decide what to do with the money from both Fair Trade and the ongoing income producing projects.

Vocational training has been established to give workers and their immediate families’ exposure to skills in tailoring, and computers. “These skills are considered useful as they enable beneficiaries to undertake other income generating activities away from the farm, as well as keep them abreast with technology”, said Mr Igal.

Through a home improvement plan, Panda has a hire- purchase arrangement where staff can buy what they need to make their homes better – cookers, lighting equipment, beddings and many more.

The most memorable among the workers is the Christmas gifts where all of the staff received a gas cooker and a bicycle in different years.” It was a big surprise to all us, and if you didn’t need the gift, you were free to sell it since it was yours’’ said Paul Wanderi, the farms marketing manager.

In support of healthcare, the farm has invested in a health centre for its workers and their families, put up a daycare centre for children between one and five years.   Healthcare has been extended to the larger Naivasha community with the farm spearheading the building of the Naivasha Women’s Health Care Center, reputed as one of the best equipped maternity centers in the country with state of the art medical equipment. Igal has sourced a partnership with US personnel to provide equipment and service at the hospital.

To cap worker welfare, the company has airlifted about 100 of them to flower shows in Europe, leaving a lasting impression in their lives, being in a plane, visiting a developed country.  “These are general staff, not management”, Igal emphasizes, an amazing lifetime journey.  “Every department selects their representatives, we sort their travel papers and go with them round cities like Amsterdam, and you can imagine what this experience means to them. We want them to see who buys the flowers they produce, talk to our buyers see other farms out there, this type of exposure is essential for their training”, said Mr. Wanderi.

The lush surroundings of Panda Flowers are a pointer to a well-kept environment.  Its policy has been to leave trees intact, a development that has created a mix of natural and exotic vegetation that is a sight to behold.

The farm employs Integrated Pest Management  in  control of diseases and pests with spraying done strictly on spot checking,  protecting the environment, workers and consumers from harmful effects of chemicals.  Insect traps are fixed in all the greenhouses while predator insects are used to eat harmful ones.

Workers who handle chemicals are provided with protective gear, and routinely undergo tests to check the presence of any exposure to chemicals. They are also shifted so that no one works longer than necessary in the spraying department while reentry periods after application are strictly followed.

Runoff water is collected and stored in huge reservoirs to compliment borehole water. Reverse Osmosis technology is used to clean water and for the communities, the farm has sunk boreholes and donated water tanks.

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