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Book Review: Roses from Kenya

A review of the 2019 book by Megan A. Styles, published by the University of Washington Press.

Published onSep 20, 2021
Book Review: Roses from Kenya
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Roses from Kenya: Labor, Environment, and the Global Trade in Cut Flowers, by Megan A. Styles (2019). Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Every morning, tens of thousands of workers report to work on flower farms on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where they pick and pack flowers that are then chilled, transported by truck to the capital, and exported by plane. Within forty-eight hours of picking, Kenyan flowers are available for purchase at European florist shops and supermarkets. Since the onset of this sector’s accelerated growth in the late 1980s and 1990s, Kenyan floriculture has been both lauded as Kenya’s best form of development aid and condemned as environmentally and socially unsustainable. Megan Styles’s book Roses from Kenya, by contrast, presents a rich ethnographic account of the industry that goes beyond such sweeping narratives.

Seeking to humanize the global commodity chain in cut flowers, Styles presents the points of view, and in particular the dreams and aspirations, of the people living and working at this commodity chain’s point of origin. Unlike much of the research on global commodities produced in the so-called developing world, Styles’s ethnography does not singularly focus on low-waged workers and their exploitation, but includes perspectives from the more powerful actors working in floriculture in Naivasha: Black Kenyan labor advocates, technical professionals, and civil servants, as well as white Kenyans and expatriates. Placing the voices of these diverse actors at the center of the story, Styles foregrounds the many local and national forms of agency and power that shape floriculture. This approach challenges a commonly held view of the supply chain in cut flowers as “buyer-driven,” revealing that local and national processes play an equal, if not more significant, role than do environmental and social standards developed at the consumer end of the supply chain.

The book is also an ethnography of Naivasha as a place that has, in the past and present, “aggravated moral sensibilities and innervated experiments in social and environmental governance” (p. 26), processes amplified with the introduction of floriculture. Chapter 1 presents a history of Naivasha, tracing different social groups’ claims to the area and the diverse political, economic, and ecological aspirations underpinning these claims. Although Naivasha was initially a grazing and watering site for Maasai pastoralists, the onset of colonialism saw their forced removal to make way for white settlement and agriculture—a process that also resulted in Naivasha becoming a “Kikuyu place,” as migrants from this ethnic group moved to the area to become squatter laborers on white farms. Independence-era land reform saw the consolidation of white land ownership around Lake Naivasha, as well as demands for land among the politically empowered Kikuyu. In the 1970s, European business interests and capital entered the mix with the emergence of export floriculture, which led to an unprecedented rise in land values and rapid unplanned urbanization as flower farms attracted a new wave of migrant labor. The ensuing ethnic political competition came to a head in 2007–2008, when Naivasha became a hot spot during this period’s postelection violence. The growth of floriculture also led to intensified debates over ecological sustainability and the management of Naivasha’s most crucial resource: the lake.

The remaining chapters of Styles’s book each focus on a different category of actors operating in floriculture and the ways they seek to harness their work toward future aspirations. Chapter 2 centers on the low-waged workers at the bottom of the supply chain. Opposing journalistic depictions of a typical (usually downtrodden) worker, Styles offers a richer and more nuanced account of workers’ lives. Chiefly single, divorced, or widowed women from other parts of Kenya who lack land “back home,” these migrant workers view work in Naivasha as a sacrifice to be made in the present in hopes of a more prosperous future. In spite of its low wages and difficult working and living conditions, employment on flower farms is attractive in a context of chronic unemployment and, importantly, due to the access to formal credit that it can facilitate. Workers channel wages and loans toward their children’s education (seen as a key to social mobility in Kenya), the purchase of land in their home areas, and small businesses to which they can turn upon retiring from work in floriculture.

Chapter 3 moves on to examine the aspirations of black Kenyan labor advocates and technical professionals in floriculture. Similar to the low-wage laborers, work in floriculture for these middle-class Kenyans is a means to a better life via investments in children’s education, land ownership, and small businesses. Additionally, it can be a springboard to a more lucrative career in politics, international NGOs, or as technical experts in the agribusiness sector. Beyond these personal aspirations, middle-class professionals see opportunities in their work to shape and strengthen Kenyan laws, institutions, and forms of governance. In Chapter 4, Styles returns to this theme by presenting the perspectives of state representatives who use floriculture as a means to build and brand the nation. Chapter 5 focuses on the white Kenyans and expatriates described as working at the top of the cut-flower commodity chain. White Kenyans, for whom environmental conservation is central to their claims of belonging in Naivasha, describe their duty to “clean up” the industry and ensure its environmental sustainability. For some, it is the labor migration and rapid urbanization ushered in by floriculture that is unsustainable, a view that rehearses colonial-era ideas about environmental degradation by “natives” and the value of restricting them to their home areas. Expatriate managers on flower farms view themselves as liberal and open-minded in contrast to their white Kenyan counterparts, but the enduring hierarchy of floriculture reinforces the racial and gendered hierarchies that they hope to undermine.

Floriculture blossomed during an era of neoliberal reforms and dismantling of the state, and it was initially characterized by corporate self-governance. Yet Styles shows how flower growers in Kenya, having grown resentful of the expense involved in meeting buyer-driven standards, sought to bring the state back in by calling on it to manage resources and provide services to workers. Today, state officials and flower growers collaborate in using new industry policies and initiatives to project a positive image of the nation and industry overseas. A major strength of the book is that it demonstrates how work in floriculture, at least for higher-level workers, becomes a means not only of realizing individual aspirations of bettering themselves and their families but also of addressing broader Kenyan social and environmental issues and repositioning the nation within the global order. Styles shows how workers attempt to use the neoliberal concepts and tools of governance at the heart of floriculture toward these ends.

Given the book’s emphasis on the ways in which local and national forms of agency shape floriculture, it is surprising that we hear little about the agency of lower-level workers in effecting change within the industry—for example, via the workers’ union, labor NGOs, company-initiated workers’ committees, and other forms of political membership. Additionally, in light of recent work on the relationship between labor and nature (e.g., Besky and Blanchette 2019), the author might have further explored the labor specificities of rose monoculture—that is, work that necessitates interaction with thorns, pesticides, and greenhouses. What kinds of labor politics might flowers and their production be generating among workers? Such insights are perhaps elided by the book’s (otherwise very productive) attention to workers’ aspirations, or what it calls “dreams of flowers” (p. 12). Nevertheless, Styles succeeds in conveying the complexities and contradictions of global commodity production: work in floriculture, in spite of the possibilities it affords, is no bed of roses.

Author Bio

Hannah Elliott is a social anthropologist and postdoc at the Copenhagen Business School. Her current research examines the production of certified sustainable tea in Kenya as part of the SUSTEIN project. This builds on a long-term ethnographic engagement with social and economic transformations in Kenya, where she has been conducting research since 2009.

Reference

Besky, Sarah, and Alex Blanchette, eds. 2019. How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press.

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