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The withering city of roses

Once the leading flower farm in the world producing at least six million stems of cut roses everyday, Karuturi flower farm (formerly Sher Agencies) is now a pale shadow of its former self.

Hungry workers, dilapidated green houses and debts from financial institutions have now characterised the flower farm that was a darling for many.

Close to six years after the company changed hands from Dutch owners Gerrit and Peter Barnhoorn, then operating under Sher agencies, to the current Indian Owners, the farm has been rocked with disputes that now seem to have a bitter ending.

Located along Moi South lake road and built along the shores of Lake Naivasha, Karuturi flower farm was the best any investor would dream of.

From the conducive weather, to a ready workforce and proximity to Nairobi, the farm had everything any person would want to work for.

Before the Indian owner Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, more than 3000 workers in the farm were the best remunerated compared to other neighbouring farms while the company had a football team that played in the Kenya Premier League.

By then, a walk in the farm was a refreshing moment for visitors enthralled by the eye-catching roses planted in impressive consistency. Hundreds of refrigerated trucks left the compound everyday for the airport.

But events changed to the worse when Karuturi began making changes including workers wages and by the time of it closing shop two years ago, they were still demanding millions in sacco savings.

While the company was still making money at the time, its expansion to Ethiopia, with the promise of cheap labour and reduced taxation, could have had a bearing to the beginning of its collapse.

Today, it is hard to pick out the wilting white roses struggling for survival in the weed-infested vast farm under the cover of dilapidated greenhouses.

Karuturi, who was popularly known as Ram lived large, drove a Hummer and would often brag about how rich he was.

“One day on an assignment in the farm, Ram shouted to one of the Journalists to talk to pupils of a local school the farm was sponsoring saying he does not know how to talk to large ‘crowds’ since he was a farmer but of course ‘a very rich’ farmer,” says a former worker Andrew Opiyo.

“He gave us lots of hopes and having taken over a very stable company, we were optimistic of a turnaround in our fortunes,” he adds.

But after only seven years, the company was placed under receivership and Karuturi’s dream of becoming the world’s number one exporter of cut flowers flopped and became just a mere dream.

Since then, the owners have had to battle it out in court and while within the farm the workers’ union has been on their neck.

Until recently, when the farm’s assets were put up for sale following a court order, the workers were hopeful that they would get a chance to work again and have their dues paid.

“Workers were waiting patiently and would camp outside the gate of the 188 acre farm to see whether things would improve,” says Kenya Plantations and Agricultural workers Union local branch secretary Ferdinand Juma.

Juma says at one time, Ram visited the farm and had a lengthy chat with his former workers promising them all will be well and that he was working round the clock to ensure he gets his farm back.

Unending strikes

“He even promised to rehabilitate the hospital and the houses they were living in but that just remained a promise that we see will never be accomplished,” says Juma.

This forced the workers to resort to unending strikes and would often close the busy Moi’s South Lake Road demanding their arrears, affecting business in the area.

“The road is key to the economy of the town leading to some of the best resorts, national parks and Africa’s largest Geothermal exploration at Olkaria”, says Juma.

And with the ongoing rains, the workers have to depend on well wishers with unclogged drainages and uncollected garbage being what is left of the single-room shelters.

“We have to rely on Community Health Workers who come here and give us medication for our kids and avert a possible disease outbreak”, says a former employee Mercy Nafula, who worked for the company for more than 15 years.

A local leader Esther Nyokabi says they have been forced to conduct fund raising for children in two schools formerly owned by the farm to help them complete their studies.

“Sher Moi Academy and Sher Moi secondary schools were the shining stars during the heyday but now we are forced to feed the children especially during exams as their parents can hardly afford a meal,” she says.

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