By Eva de Vries
To reach Bella Flowers, we leave capital city Kigali and drive through the undulating, green, eastern Rwandan landscape for an hour and a half. Passing villages, fruit stalls and hard-working farmers. At the end of a recently finished, wide, red dirt road, we suddenly see the greenhouses.
“This is our company”, says Umubyeyi with a big smile when she meets us. “And this…”, pointing at the vast, fenced off space beyond, “is prepared for new nurseries.” Men are turning the soil with ploughs. Lake Muhazi is glimmering in the distance. “It’s a good location for flower growing. The average temperature is around 25°C during the day, the nights are cool, there’s plenty of rain and access to the lake.”
The Rwandan government started Gishari Flower Park because it wanted to develop its flower export industry. The 100-ha area is situated in the east of the country, in the Rwamagana region. Bella Flowers, consisting of 20 ha, is the first and currently only company in the park. It’s owned by the government.
“We were set up as an example for investors, to show them that there are opportunities here to grow and export flowers”, says Umubyeyi. “It was considered a strategic investment.” And this great responsibility lies on her shoulders. “It’s been quite a challenge. There are so many things to think about. But we’ve solved a lot of problems and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved in a short time.”
A year of firsts
We walk through the offices to reach the large packing facility, where dozens of employees are busy cutting and packing yellow, red and pink roses. A full lorry will depart to the international airport in Kigali the next day. It’s hard to imagine that there was absolutely nothing here until two years ago. “The past year has been a year of firsts. Planting for the first time. Harvesting for the first time. Exporting for the first time.”
We continue to make our way to the greenhouses and every now and again, Umubyeyi stops for a chat with one of the managers. “All our staff have been trained the last couple of months and we learn a lot from a Kenyan specialist who visits us on a regular basis.”
13 ha of the total 20 ha is in production, 4 ha consists of young plants and the remaining 3 ha will be planted in August. The greenhouses are filled with medium sized roses such as Ace Pink, Prestige and Moonwalk. “We don’t want to compete with giants like Kenya and Ethiopia at this stage. By offering a number of unusual combinations, we want to add something new to the existing market.”
No cargo flights
Bella Flowers exported their first roses to the Netherlands in September last year. That was considered a real milestone. We’re currently shipping three consignments of 50,000 stems per week and three times 100,000 stems when it’s high season; around Christmas and Valentine’s Day for example. There is a local market too in Rwanda. „As a matter of fact, our strategy clearly demarcates 10% of our sales for the local market. So not all roses are exported.”
At the moment for export Bella Flowers make use of the direct KLM flight to Amsterdam. “We depend on whatever amount of space is available on the plane”, explains Umubyeyi. “There aren’t any cargo flights yet, which is a huge challenge for us.”
Umubyeyi and her team had to build everything up from scratch and they ran into one nasty surprise after another. Flower cultivation was completely new in Rwanda, so things like fertilizers and packaging materials simply weren’t available. Importing all these items is expensive. “Local industries are now slowly emerging, which will bring our costs down.”
Another area they had to invest in was infrastructure. Things like irrigation channels, roads and electricity. “The road to the park for example, we had to construct ourselves, it was totally impassable when we arrived.”
Umubyeyi’s background is in fruit and vegetable cultivation, so she still has lots to learn about the floricultural industry. She admits that this adds to the challenge. “The prices of fruit and vegetables are much more stable, because people always need food. The prices of flowers depend on so many factors, that’s something I really have to get used to.”
Despite the hurdles, Umubyeyi feels that she’s got an interesting job. “I’ve learned to be more innovative and flexible. All in all, it’s a great experience.”
As Bella Flowers has only just started, a social scheme for employees still needs to be developed. Other plans for the future include producing cuttings (so they no longer need to import from Kenya) and strengthening the Rwandan rose brand. At the moment, it’s uncertain whether Umubyeyi will still be running the company in the future. In addition to the remaining plots in the park, Bella Flowers itself is also available for investors.
“If an investor takes over the nursery, my job will be done. In that case, we’ll have given growers the confidence that this is a good place to develop a flower company”, she says with hint of sadness. Whoever is going to own the company, Umubyeyi is proud of what she’s achieved. “That path through the dense jungle has been cut now, we’ve created a road for investors and we’ve presented the Rwandan rose to the global market.”
About Bella Flowers
COMPANY Bella Flowers
PLACE Rwamagana, Rwanda
ACREAGE 20 ha
CROP rose; varieties include Athena, Furiosa, Ace Pink, Bella Rose, Tacazzi, New Orleans, High & Magic, Magic Avalanche, Prestige, Deep Water, Moonwalk and Revival.