Florius Flowers is the first Dutch company to grow flowers in Colombia. The company signed a lease with the government for a site in a former guerrilla area. Owners Bas Vloet and the Van den Hoogen family are going to supply the vast American market with Veronica Smart and Hypericum Coco grown in the South-American country. “America has great potential. The demand for our Hypericum is huge there.”
By Arie-Frans Middelburg
In October 2017, Bas Vloet, Willum van den Hoogen and his sister Martje van den Hoogen spent three weeks travelling around Colombia. Anyone who asked about the purpose of their trip was told that the three were on holiday in Colombia. More than a year later, it becomes clear that they didn’t just travel to the South-American country to admire its natural beauty. In November 2018, directors Bas Vloet and Julian Perez signed a three-year contract for the lease of a plot of land in the Valley del Cauca, under the watchful eye of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who was in Colombia on a Dutch trade mission.
Of course, Florius didn’t simply decide on Colombia during a three-week ‘holiday’. They had been interested in South America for a while and had been exploring the various options for several years. But in October 2017, they made an important step and listed five different areas that might be interesting for the cultivation of flowers. In the end, Florius chose the area on top of their list: the ‘coffee valley’.
Hub in Cuijk
A few weeks after the contract was signed, we met directors Bas Vloet and Wim van den Hoogen in Cuijk. This small town in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant is still the processing hub for the hypericum and veronica from their own breeding programme. The Noord-Brabant company grows the flowers in collaboration with six partner companies in Kenya and Ethiopia. Each year, more than 100 million stems arrive in Cuijk, which are then processed and distributed to customers via the auction, explains Wim van den Hoogen.
Quality control and flowering tests also take place in Cuijk. “This is where we receive the flowers. We want to add our own touch. What’s more, we wanted to be able to provide our nursery staff in Cuijk with work during the winter season, too. For the time being, our branch in Cuijk will continue to be Florius’ logistic centre for the Netherlands and Europe.”
During the past five years, 60% of their Ethiopian production has been sold directly to customers in Japan, Australia and the USA. Willum van den Hoogen (son of Wim) wanted to explore destinations outside the European market for their flower sales. He moved to Dubai. Five years later, Willum is still responsible for Florius’ flower distribution from this city in the United Arab Emirates.
Over the years, Florius learned that the United States is another interesting market for their Hypericum Coco and Veronica Smart series, as there isn’t a great supply of those flowers on the American market yet. “America has great potential. The demand for our Hypericum is huge there”, says Bas Vloet. That’s why he thinks that a branch in Colombia is a logical next step. The country is much closer to the US than Ethiopia, that will reduce the transport costs. “Air freight isn’t getting any cheaper. From Colombia, we could even transport our flowers to the US by boat. And there are already some large ‘bouquet manufacturers’ in Colombia. That also offers opportunities for us. We might be able to grow for them on a contract basis.”
“Florius doesn’t have to start from scratch in Colombia”, continues Vloet. “When it comes to flower production, Colombia is the second biggest country in the world. All systems are in place. You can choose between transport by air or by sea. That brings a lot of opportunities.”
Used to Africa
Starting a flower-production company in Colombia is also a way for Florius to spread their risk a bit more. Kenya and Ethiopia aren’t the most stable places in the world for entrepreneurs. It has been relatively quiet in Kenya since the election-related unrest of December 2007. But Van den Hoogen still remembers the helicopters flying low across Naivasha in those days, and how the farm workers fled to safer areas.
Vloet and Van den Hoogen don’t expect any problems in Kenya in the coming years. They’re more concerned about Ethiopia. That’s a country they describe as more explosive. There was some unrest two and seven years ago. Rebels were marching along one of Florius’ nurseries and they were throwing stones across the fences, but luckily, the damage wasn’t great.
How safe is Colombia? It’s a country that only recently saw the end of fifty years of civil war. Florius is starting their company in a former guerrilla area. Vloet describes how he was presented with a map that showed Valley del Cauca in orange, indicating the area would still be unsafe.
But Vloet and Van den Hoogen trust the situation. “We’re used to Africa. When we started out in Kenya in 1994, people said we were crazy. We feel we’ve found the best spot in Colombia. And the country is doing everything they can to keep it safe. We made a conscious choice when we decided on separate locations for cultivation and processing. Processing of our flowers will take place in Pereira, an area that’s always been safe. Signing a lease contract for the land was also a conscious choice. Should any problems arise – people claiming the land for example – we won’t be the owners of the land.”
At first glance, you might wonder why Florius didn’t choose Bogotá or Medellín. Those are the two main flower production areas in Colombia. The ‘coffee valley’ on the other hand, doesn’t have any flower nurseries at all. According to Vloet, the area consists mainly of fields grazed by cows. In fact, when Florius took over the land from a farmer, they also became the owners of 1,500 cows. The higher-altitude areas – Florius will be at 1,500 metres – are dominated by coffee farms and the lower areas are mainly used for the cultivation of cane sugar and sweetcorn.
Vloet and Van den Hoogen say that Bogotá and Medellín were never an option. “There’s an enormous pressure on labour, land and water around those cities. And the roads are very full. Urbanisation is unstoppable there. That’s why we decided to look further.”
And now, Florius feels they’ve found the ideal spot. The Valley del Cauca has enough water, and the soil and the infrastructure are both good. There’s a seaport – Buenaventura, offering routes to Miami – around 90km away. The influence of the ocean wind also makes temperatures cooler in Valley del Cauca. “Most importantly though, is the access to clean water. The global demand for clean water is enormous. Even in Colombia, where it rains every day”, says Vloet.
Florius didn’t want to build their nursery at a very high altitude. “We know from experience that the higher you go, the more extreme the weather conditions can be”, explains Vloet. “Temperatures can go down to below zero in Ethiopia and Bogotá.” Florius isn’t planning to fill the entire 2,000-ha valley with flowers. Just like they did in Kenya and Ethiopia, they want to keep enough space for crop rotation and nature.
Plenty of flights
Their start in Colombia doesn’t mean that Florius has any intention to stop in Ethiopia or Kenya. The company will continue to supply the European market from Africa and ship flowers eastwards from Ethiopia. Vloet and Van den Hoogen don’t see the need for a production company in Asia, to sell Hypericum and Veronica on the Chinese market for example. “There are plenty of flight routes from Ethiopia and the Middle East to Asia. From Ethiopia for example, you can fly to several different cities in China. It’s almost as if Ethiopia has become a province of China”, says Van den Hoogen. Florius has been looking for a new site in Ethiopia, to expand their production in the country.
“But for now, we’ll be busy enough in Colombia. We’ll start producing our first flowers there in July 2020 and from then on, we’ll be developing 10 ha per year in Colombia. Whether there will be opportunities elsewhere after that? I have no idea”, adds Vloet. “If we’ve created a thousand jobs in Colombia by 2030, we will have done well, but there’s still a lot to do.”
Creating jobs for victims of the guerrilla war is a specific aim. “We like the fact that we can offer those people a future. It’s the best thing we can give the population”, says Vloet. He explains that they’ve also purchased a building at the entrance of the farm, which can serve as a crèche. They’re aiming for 80% female employees.
When summer-flower growers Vloet and Van den Hoogen started out thirty years ago, did they think they’d be producing their own varieties in four different countries by 2019? Vloet: “No, we didn’t. But we did see the potential of our varieties. We initially began with 2ha, but if you really want to position your variety in the market, you need volume.”
For their breeding activities, Florius is currently looking for a third flower to add to their Veronica and Hypericum assortment. “We definitely won’t go near rose and chrysanthemum, but there are still many more opportunities in summer flowers”, says Van den Hoogen.
Willum was the one who suggested Colombia a few years ago. He and his brother Bastian, responsible for the cultivation at all of Florius’ nurseries, are both working for the company full time. They are Florius’ next generation. If they hadn’t joined the company and hadn’t been so ambitious, Florius might not have taken the step to South America. But the truth is, Colombia ensures continuity for Florius Flowers.
“I also felt that after Kenya and Ethiopia, it would be fun to start again for a third time. This is in line with our business model; it isn’t a strange plan. It’s a logical step. North America offers a huge market and our products aren’t big yet over there”, concludes Vloet.