April Showers Bring May Flowers: A Food Security Story

When you get a beautiful bouquet of flowers delivered, where do you picture them coming from? First, you probably think of the sweet friend or family member, spouse, or partner who made your day; but what about before that? If you picture Holland, known for its windmills, wooden shoes, and acres of flower fields, it’s a good start. For many years, the Netherlands was unmatched in its production of flowers, and they are still the largest exporter of flower products. But over the past ten years, new countries have begun to contribute more and more to our bouquets. Now, emerging markets like Kenya, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Colombia, and India are providing flowers for the US and Europe, especially lovely filler flowers like baby’s breath.

You may be thinking, what does this have to do with food? The fact is that even crops we don’t eat, like flowers and cotton, play a critical role in food security around the world. The first time I talked to flower farmers in Kenya and Ethiopia, I was as surprised as you must be! Here’s why a product like flowers can make a world of difference for food security in developing countries:

1.       Most of the world’s poorest people work in agriculture.

It’s a painful fact that many of those who produce our food around the world are the ones who go hungry. Among the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), 66 percent of the working population is working in agriculture (FAO). That means that helping to increase incomes of individuals working in agriculture – including flower crops – can go a long way in contributing to greater food security.

2.       Women play a major role in agriculture, especially in floriculture.

Women’s incomes often go toward factors that impact food security, like nutritious food and education. In many developing countries, women make up the majority of agricultural labor. For example, in India, 89 percent of laborers are women, and in Kenya, 70 percent are women. It is also very common for women to work specifically in crops considered “delicate,” like horticulture and floriculture. Working in a high-value crop like flowers can be transformational for women’s incomes. In one study, focused on a village in India, women’s incomes were 22 times higher after floriculture development. (Agoramoorthy, 2012)

3.       Role of high-value products like flowers in raising incomes.

One of the biggest challenges for many poor farmers is that they don’t manage very much land. While the average farm size in the United States is about 178 hectares (441 acres), the average farm size in a country like Tanzania is a mere 2.5 hectares (6 acres). At that scale, it can be very difficult for farmers to make any income, especially growing low-price staple crops. To make an income on a small amount of land, farmers need to grow high-value crops, like flowers. Another benefit to smallholder farmers growing high-value crops is that these crops usually move through a medium- or large-scale exporter. Instead of working on their own, smallholder farmers can benefit from this support. In most (but not all) cases, flower exporters provide technical training to their farmers, which helps the farmers learn how to increase their productivity and use farm inputs more efficiently.

The expansion of high-value crops – especially horticulture and floriculture – into developing countries is bringing new opportunities to food insecure households. Even more valuable is the access to expertise and technologies that those crops bring, which can help small farmers maximize potential on small plots of land. When we talk about agriculture feeding the world, in the bigger picture, things look rosy.

Liz Caselli-Mechael is the Digital Media Manager at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation in Washington, DC. Her background is in international agricultural and nutrition development, and she has worked on public-private partnerships in agriculture across Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, and Honduras through the Feed the Future initiative.