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Beside blossoming fields, where poverty grows

(Wednesday, June 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Alan Cowell, NY Times: NAIVASHA, Kenya The shores of the broad lake that spreads across Africa's Rift Valley here were known to outsiders a long time ago as a place where white settlers disported themselves on emerald lawns and shaded verandas, misbehaving blithely in an adopted continent and calling themselves the Happy Valley set.

These days, happiness seems a far more ambiguous notion in this place, which has again come to represent a messy and awkward point of collision between rich and poor, north and south. It offers a gritty counterpoint to all the optimistic talk of a globalized economy that will magically raise the destitute and spread prosperity.

In the past 20 years, the lake shores have exchanged any lingering memories of the past for a booming industry in the cultivation and sale of out-of-season vegetables like snow peas and trimmed beans, and cut flowers like roses and carnations virtually all of them exported to distant markets in Europe. Paradoxically, the huge expansion of fancy food for export has come in a land that, because of sporadic drought and not-so-sporadic economic mismanagement, cannot grow enough of its own staple, corn.

As the flower and vegetable farms have expanded, lining enormous tracts of land with plastic greenhouses and dense, neat rows of crops, the population living within three miles of the lake shore has quintupled from 50,000 to 250,000. Most of the newcomers are women who have been drawn by cash wages from traditional agriculture in villages elsewhere.

With the expansion have come horror stories of pitiful pay and abuse, which most big companies would rather avoid. Who wants the romance of a dozen red roses tarnished with tales of exploited women exposed to toxic chemicals, living in overcrowded compounds and prey to the lusts of their supervisors?

"There have been a lot of improvements generally," said Stephen Oumo, a Kenyan human rights activist and economist. But huge imbalances remain.

A bouquet of spray carnations grown here costs around $3.20 in a British supermarket, while even the best-paid of manual workers earns a daily rate of $2.10, working a 46-hour week. While some workers live in compounds provided by employers, others live in hovels. And while big companies pay twice the government-approved minimum wage, other growers pay the official minimum just over a dollar a day to cover housing, food and bare bones survival. "Slave rates," Mr. Oumo said.

Even the business types acknowledge the gap.

"Horticulture is a first world business and, yes, there are comparisons that are being drawn between businesses in Europe and Kenya that seem miles apart and stark," said Rod Jones, a British executive working for a company that pays higher wages here.

Once, in the 19th and 20th centuries, those same comparisons were evoked in relation to the cotton that British colonialists exported to the mills of northern England for manufacture into textiles sold back to the same people who had harvested the raw materials. Minerals, from copper to gold, went the same route from raw material in Africa to finished product elsewhere.

But then, as now, it was the needs, markets and economic muscle of the outsiders that set the terms of trade just as many African agricultural exports today face protectionist tariffs in the European Union and the United States.

Here, for instance, flowers are grown at a fraction of the cost in Europe. The savings are enough to defray the high start-up costs and the expense of sending some 300 tons of fresh produce a night out of Kenya to Europe by air freight. But the profits to be made are governed by factors as remote as auction prices in the Netherlands, and the level of fees imposed by the Dutch authorities to inspect the blooms for insects and disease.

So, are Africa's flower workers, indeed, trapped in a cycle of poverty from which history offers no prospect of relief?

Proponents of globalization say the answer is no, because the self-interest of businesses lies in improving wages and productivity. "Done properly, corporations create a better environment for the future and for the lives of the people than does a sort of black market, shark-infested development that doesn't have controls," said Mr. Jones, the British executive.

But the counterargument is that no land can develop itself by supplying the capricious demands of distant foreigners while its own people are simply too poor to provide the demand for goods needed to develop their own economy.

Around here, that much is evident: on the roadside markets that have sprung up around the horticulture business, traders sell school bags for children and plastic drums for carrying water. You can repair a punctured bicycle tire or buy a beer in gimcrack bars like the Millennium Florida Bar or South Lake Klub. Red roses and cellophane-wrapped snow peas do not seem part of the offering.

"Relying on external consumption as a means of spurring economic growth is a fallacy," said Mr. Oumo, the human rights activist and economist. "You must put workers in a position to earn higher salaries."

But how do people earn more before they produce more? That, Mr. Oumo said, "is like the old question of the chicken and the egg."