It is mid-morning as we drive along the Iten Road towards Chepkoilel, one of the fastest growing suburbs of Eldoret.
The once huge tracts of land are disappearing fast, as bungalows and storey buildings, the hallmarks of real estate, take the pride of place.
Some 20 minutes later, we turn left and take a short murram road that leads us into Equator Flower Farm.
The gate opens to huge greenhouses neatly arranged on the more than 210 acres.
“We grow 75 acres of roses in greenhouses mainly for export, but we also sell in the local market,” Micah Cheserem, the chairman of Equator Flower Farm, tells us.
Dressed in beige trousers, a matching shirt and coat, one may mistake the chair of Commission on Revenue Allocation (CRA) and the former Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) Governor, for being one of the workers – perhaps a manager.
Cheserem, with a business partner, owns the farm that sells its produce in auctions in the Netherlands.
His interest in farming dates back to 1995 while still at the Central Bank.
“I figured out that I needed something to do after retirement. Farming was the best option for me.”
He met with some friends at his Seko rural home in Uasin Gishu to seek advice.
“They were doing well in floriculture and I really wanted them to help me get into the business,” says Cheserem, 67.
His discussion with the 10 friends planted the first seed of setting up the flower farm that is now worth over Sh500 million.
“I told them I intended to grow flowers just as they did but they laughed. One of them noted that I had the land, water and the will, but I should not venture into floriculture because getting labour would be a problem since local youths shun manual jobs.”
Cheserem later ventured into passion fruit farming, but it was a brief sojourn that lasted only two years, before he embraced floriculture.
He says he does not remember how much he invested or made from the passion fruit farming, but he had ready market at a juice-processing company.
So why did he abandon passion fruits? “I don’t know, I guess my passion was really in flowers.”
The CRA chair ploughed $1.8 million (Sh164 million) into the floriculture business.
“The money was a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) on condition we invest it into export agribusiness. EIB credit is no longer available, though, because local banks are now offering loans,” says Cheserem, who worked at CBK from 1993 to 2001.
Annually, the farm produces an average of 33 million rose flower stems. It has 600 employees, half the number that worked under Cheserem at CBK.
Prices per stem vary between varieties and seasons. Cheserem grows standard and spray varieties. Standard rose at one time goes for £0.05 (Sh5.3) and the same stem can fetch £0.50 (Sh53) on what is called CIF (Cost Insurance and Freight basis).
“The extreme variations in flower prices are some of the risks in the industry. We sell less than 2 percent of our flowers in the local market. A bunch of 20 rose stems go for Sh50. The price goes up for red roses during Valentine season.”
Besides Holland, some of the flowers are sold directly to customers in Australia and Canada.
The flowers are graded based on their length in centimetres. Short stems are 40cm long and the longest 80cm. The longer the stem, the higher the price.
“Roses make 70 per cent of the flower market. There are others like summer flowers and calla lilies but their market is small. It is good to specialise so that you produce quality roses that the market appreciates.”
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
So how much does the CRA boss make?
“This is a private farm, I cannot disclose my income,” he says with a smile. “The returns are worthy of the investment, though, as I am able to raise Sh5m monthly wage bill and give my employees a good bonus at the end of every financial year,” says Cheserem, who buys the flower seedlings from breeders in Naivasha.
To ensure minimal use of chemicals, the farm has adopted natural methods of curbing diseases and pests.
“We use a predator mite called photoseulus, which we release into the flowers. The insect feeds on spider mites saving us huge money that we would have spent on spraying,” says Charles Mulemba, the production manager.
The farm also pays workers to physically scout for pests and remove the insects.
“We further try to minimise fertiliser use by recycling waste water back to the greenhouses. This enables the fertiliser that has been initially used to be utilised afresh.”
Being the chair of CRA is a demanding job, thus Cheserem cannot fully supervise the undertakings at the farm.
“I have employed qualified people but as a farmer, you cannot leave them to entirely work on their own. You must know what they are doing. I do it on my mobile phone.”
Cheserem gets real-time images of what is happening at the farm day and night at the click of a button. “All I have to do is launch the application on my handset and I will see from one corner of my farm to the next. I do this even when I am abroad on official duty.”
His son introduced him to the technology in 2013. “He had come home for vacation from Australia and I realised he was monitoring his flat on phone. With his help, I installed six CCTV cameras on the farm at a cost of about Sh300,000. This covered the server, the software and CCTV screens in the office.”
SOCIAL MEDIA COMMUNICATION
All his workers have been trained on using social media to communicate, mainly WhatsApp software.
“They send me videos whenever I need, especially on where the CCTV camera cannot cover.”
The former CBK boss has spread his love for farming beyond flowers. At his rural farm in Seko, where he used to grow passion fruits, Cheserem has what he calls “dairy cows to produce milk for my mother, wife and employees”.
It is a herd of 27 dairy cows from which he gets an average of 170 litres of milk every day.
Some 30 litres is shared by family members and employees while the rest is sold to processors. “I feed the cows a mixture of cotton cake, sunflower, barley straw, maize germ and napier grass,” says Nickson Kibet, the dairy section manager. Like other employees, he updates Cheserem through WhatsApp the amount of milk produced daily and how it is distributed.
“For every litre of milk produced, Kibet gets a bonus of Sh2 as motivation to work hard and take good care of the cows,” says Cheserem.
To young people aspiring to get into the flower business, the CRA chair has this gem:
“Seek advice from people who started farming before you. You cannot go wrong if you learn from the best because you will avoid pitfalls they encountered.”
He adds that farmers should not shy away from taking loans because one can do much by investing once than depending on income.
“And if you are eyeing the export market, be ready to maintain high quality standards and choose the best rose varieties.”
Dr Mariam Mwangi, a senior lecturer at Crops, Horticulture and Soils Department, Egerton University, says many roses are grown in greenhouses for optimum production, with the exception of a few types, which can be grown in the open field.
“As a farmer, besides the greenhouses, you need quality planting material, cold rooms, insulated trucks, drip irrigation, fumigation, support material, spray unit, humidifiers, fertiliser and pesticides. You also have to invest in post-harvest treatment, grading hall, packaging materials and labour.”
The flowers are usually planted on raised beds to improve the drainage.
“A free draining soil, high in organic matter, is most suitable for commercial rose production. Hydroponics has also become popular among rose growers. The advantage of hydroponics or soilless culture is that soil-borne nematodes and diseases can be eradicated, the excess drained water and nutrients can be recycled.”
-Seeds of Gold