The third and perhaps most significant investor/ entrepreneur in Kenya’s cut flower sector was the late JEM Zwager (Hans) and his company Oserian Development Company Ltd (Oserian). Born in Holland in 1926, Zwager served in The Dutch Marines in World War II. He then trained as a Banker at ABN Bank, and was posted to Mombasa Kenya in 1956 as The Branch Manager. Zwager was a quiet, modest, intelligent man of vision. 

Zwager saw the emergence of Independent Kenya in 1963 as an opportunity. His first business, started on leaving the bank at Independence, was importing spare parts and agrochemicals. 

In 1969 he purchased Oserian Development Company Ltd at an auction. The property comprised 5000 acres of land on the Lake Naivasha shore along with a famous house known as the Djinn Palace modelled on a mansion in Seville Spain. The Djinn Palace has a notorious reputation in that it was once owned by the wife of Josslyn Hay 22nd Earl of Errol.

Starting with Statice…

Oserian continued to function as a cattle ranch throughout the 1970s. In 1982 Zwager took the plunge and sold his chemical business Kleenway Chemicals to Bayer AG. He then moved to Naivasha, and commenced work to realise his vision of growing and exporting vegetables and flowers to the European Markets. His initial foray into vegetable production did not go well but his decision to grow statice was the game changer for Oserian. Statice is long lasting in the vase whether fresh or dried, and is easily dyed to make an attractive filler. It is also low investment and extremely efficient to freight. On the back of profits from statice, he soon developed and diversified into carnations. All products were unpacked and marketed via the Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer (VBA) in Aalsmeer which initially went well but a salutary and expensive lesson at the hands on an unscrupulous unpacker drove Hans to start his own unpacking operation in Holland East African Flowers BV

…and then into Roses

The Emergence of Roses as a major export product in Kenya in the early to mid 1990s presented the visionary Zwager with more opportunity. His first step was to encourage the best rose propagator in the business Herman Stokman to set up on Oserian a JV propagating plants. He also invested, along with Herman Stokman, and their mutual friend Anton Pouw, the owner of the breeder De Ruiter in a JV  breeding operation on Oserian. Concurrent to this he decided that it was time to diversify from the Dutch Auctions and set up World Flowers Ltd in the UK his distribution and marketing company for sales exclusively to the UK Multiples. Zwager was by 1994, in possession of the only truly fully integrated flower export business in Kenya. 

Pure Genius

His next move was pure genius. In conjunction with vast expansion on Oserian itself, he encouraged various chosen investors both close by in Naivasha, and further afield in Thika and Kericho, to expand or diversify into roses. They were encouraged, and even financed on favourable terms by Oserian, to plants roses using Stokman Plants, De Ruiter varieties, ship with Airflo Airfreighting and unpacking and marketing via East African Flowers BV and or World Flowers Ltd. This was a “one stop shop“ for the new investor and an integrated multiple margin chain for Oserian beneficial to all parties. Some well known flower industry names emerged in the early 1990s from this strategy: James Finlay, Kijabe Ltd, Ol Njorowa Ltd  and Mosi Ltd – all diversifications from tea, wheat, road construction and coffee were amongst the earliest examples with Vegpro, NINI, Suera, Branan, Batian and Kiliflora coming on board later in that decade. 

The Creation of the Tele Flower Auction (TFA)

So successful was the Oserian Group in the mid 1990s on the Dutch Auctions, that there was a deliberate strategy to introduce an unofficial quota for Kenyan product. Out of the blue, in early 1995, the Dutch Auction body announced a ban on Kenyan product from May to September each year going forward. This was an attempt to protect their local growers who mainly produce in the summer months. Zwager moved quickly purchased a suitable property at Noorddamerweg, near the VBA premises, and moved EAF his unpacker to these premises. Concurrently he set up the very first computerised flower Auction in the world known as the  Tele Flower Auction (TFA) which was supplied all year round exclusively with Flowers from East Africa. 

The end of the Oserian Group

Sadly, Oserian was eventually broken up with the marketing and airfreight arms being sold to Dutch Flower Group (DFG) in 2010; and the Tele Flower Auction to Flora Holland a year earlier, in 2009. The farm itself was sold to Bohemian Flowers Ltd in 2019, a subsidiary of Elite Flowers, a family owned, Colombian based, integrated flower company, growing 1000 ha of flowers in Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya. 

Kenya’s Horticultural Industry today

In more recent years, the industry has matured and Kenya has increased its market share of the cut flower market significantly. As of 2022, one in every three roses sold within the EU comes from Kenya. The industry in general worldwide has grown from a turnover of US$ 3 billion in 1950 to US$ 28 billion in 2022. Of this figure 50% are roses, lilies, tulips, carnations and chrysanthemums . Flowers are now grown in 80 countries round the world, and sold commercially in over 150. Today there are significant, increased, pressures within the businesses on costs as more and more money is being spent on sustainability, R&D and packaging.

Air freight, as a model, is being questioned from a sustainability perspective, and sea freight being utilized as an alternative. With the increase in the sheer volumes of stems sold, flowers have been in most cases commodified. Naturally the reaction to this is a rapid consolidation of the production base taking place in Kenya (this already happened in Colombia and Ecuador some time ago). As a consequence, some very big players are emerging who are not only flower exporters but often also in fruit, vegetables and avocados, and are fully integrated to boot. The really significant groups that look like they will be dominating the industry going forward are: Vegpro, Flamingo, Black Tulip, the NINI Herberg DFG group, Shalimar, Triple A, Subati, Timaflor, Kariki and Colour Crops. 

In summary for an industry that initially emerged in slow time, its rise over the last 25 years has been stellar.  We must not forget the contribution to this success of the big three pioneers whose vision and energy facilitated the consequent growth:

  • Bonde Nielsen of DCK who brought into the industry the much needed political support to encourage more investment in the earliest of days. 
  • Dicky Evans of Homegrown, who through sheer force of personality, drove the vegetable, flower and packed at source model and forced open the doors into the UK Retail Multiples. 
  • Hans Zwager of Oserian the visionary who perfected the classic vertically integrated model and included associated growers which was a strategy way ahead of its time. It is to Hans that so many who are still thriving within this industry at every level owe an enormous debt of gratitude. He was without doubt “The Father of The Kenyan Flower Industry”.