We are too old for a digital valentine’s day

For Naomi Ndungu, a flower vendor at City Market, the hub of Nairobi’s retail roses, carnations, and alstromeria, the free public WiFi set up two months ago will not change how she will sell during this Valentine’s Day. 

She is as old school as they come, paying Nairobi County all year round for a stall and hoping her skills in wrapping bouquets, the loyal customers she has accumulated over the years and the fact that she is saved, a religious assurance that she will not steal or take advantage of her customers, should be enough cushion against tech-savvy competition and hawkers switching their merchandise to flowers to take advantage of the valentine season.

But she is against real competition, hawkers who have taken space on the kerb outside City Market and scores of younger online retailers who can deliver flowers to your lovers’ door. The free public WiFi set up in an effort to effort to transform Kenya into a globally competitive digital economy was supposed to help City Market traders jump onto the digital bandwagon. It broke down after a few weeks but when we got there on Friday last week it had been fixed and we are able to log in and browse the internet at a decent speed. 

But Mrs Ndungu and her husband busy slotting roses in to polythene sleeves tell us they are too old for the internet, her husband even asking me if I can put them on the internet on his phone. But according to Mrs Ndungu, her biggest challenge are the hawkers she sees, not some virtual competition. The hawkers pouring outside the market, who hijack her customers before they can walk into the market gate facing Kenya Tea Development Agency building on Koinange street, turn left onto the first shop at the gate.

“Those selling outside are vendors like us but they are not stall holders like us who have to incur license and rental costs. So when you come to buy flowers come inside, so we can get something to pay taxes, rent and get something to raise our families,” she said. 

Kenya’s flower trade is mostly set up for export given the country is the world’s fourth largest exporter of cut flowers sold mostly at the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Russia. In 2021 Kenya sold 210,000 tonnes of cut flowers worth Kes110.8 billion.

Read also: GTC: Nairobi’s hub for trade, culture, and arts nears completion

Nearly half of this volume about 40 percent is sold between mid-January to mark valentines, creating a logistical nightmare that costs the industry billions. Kenya Flower Council reckons the country has a shortage of cargo capacity of about 2,000 tonnes that has affected export sales over the last two years.

Add that to the freight costs that remain high averaging $2.9 a kilogram and the flower lobbies say the industry remains in turmoil despite the end of Covid-19 curbs that nearly sent it to collapse.

In 2020, COVID -19 exposed the limitations of airfreight in Kenya when most carriers which used to provide extra capacity on the Nairobi route while on a return trip after unloading cargo in South Africa and Egypt were grounded. The airlines that were still in operations were targeting the more lucrative cargo; coronavirus vaccine, squeezing cargo capacity amid turf wars between Kenya Airways and Ethiopia Airlines.  

There have been attempts to find an alternative mode of transport with a study commissioned by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands suggesting there is a viable option of frozen containers for shipping ‘Sea Freight Flowers’.

This retracing of Vasco da Gama footsteps is yet to pick up steam and so the shortfalls are mostly sold back in Nairobi for hearses, hotel conference tables, weddings and special occasions like mothers day and valentines.

This has meant that extra capacity is sold locally. Mrs Ndungu confirms the rumour that flowers sold locally are those that cannot make the cut to Europe hence cheaper. But as increasingly good grade flowers find their way in the market coupled with demand, the price of flowers destined for the domestic market has more than doubled. Mrs Ndungu says she used to buy a bunch of twenty stalks at Kes150 but the prices have shot up to almost Kes400.

“Tunanunuanga kwa mashamba although inakauanga local juu watu wa mashamba kazi yao mingi ni ya kutuma nje penye wanapata pesa mingi. Wanatupatia local, ile hawataki lakini kwetu ikikuja ni hot cake,” she said.

Her business model is, however, coming up against huge competition from virtual  retailers, who from a simple instagram page are offering bouquets from as Kes1000 to Kes10,000. The vibrant e-commerce and social media marketing coupled with the ease of mobile payments have made it easy for customers to order, get linked to the logistic companies that do on demand delivery and make online orders.

President William Ruto’s promise to build digital infrastructure that will provide free WiFi at 25,000 hotspots across the country is expected to give online retail a boost even as the government expands the new digital services tax that will capture this growing industry.

A cabinet memo revealed the seminal project would feature laying of over 100,000 kiometers of fibre optic cables across Kenya and establishment of digital village smart hubs and studios in each of the country’s 1450 wards. Efforts to reach IT cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo on the value of such a massive undertaking and whether the bidding process has commenced were unsuccessful as they went unanswered.

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