Global Policy Forum

Growers' Market


By Felicity Lawrence

May 17, 2003

For £2.99 in Marks and Spencer, you could until recently buy an elegantly small plastic tray of baby vegetables, each tiny bundle of asparagus shoots, tender greens, miniature corn, dwarf carrots, and premature leeks, tied together with a single chive. The chives were first flown out from England to Kenya. The plastic trays and packaging were flown out too. There African women worked day and night in refrigerated packing sheds next to Nairobi airport, turning the green stems into decorative ribbons around topped and tailed Kenyan produce. Then they were cling-wrapped, and air-freighted back to England again, a round trip of 8,500 miles.

Rod Evans, director of Homegrown, Kenya's leading exporter of cut flowers and vegetables to the UK supermarkets is a white Kenyan and sensitive to the changes brought by the country's independence. He didn't like doing it, he says, when I express surprise that anyone could have dreamed up a mass market opportunity in anything so excruciating fiddly - the post-colonial equivalent of sending the servants out to trim the lawn with the nail scissors.

Evans, a tall, lean and fit man, has generously agreed to show me how his operation "adds value" to the hundreds of tons of green beans and other vegetables his farms grow for the major UK supermarkets each year. In front of us at the packing factory, laid out in neat rows on a spotless stainless steel table, is a display of their finished produce: topped and tailed French beans, sliced runner beans, shelled peas, prepared carrots, chopped stir fry vegetables: a dozen or more lines which make up the core of their business, in Tesco, Safeway, and M&S livery. Files in the office hold the specifications for Sainsbury's, and Asda too, although they stopped supplying the latter about 18 months ago. Evans is proud of what the company has achieved within Kenya's parlous economy, cut off until recently from IMF/World Bank funds because of the government's rampant corruption. Horticulture is now the second largest export business after tea, earning US$300m of much needed foreign currency a year. It is also a major employer. The Kenya bean is in fact a model of globalized, liberalized trade. But he seems tense.

Our trip has been planned with military precision and care. By mid-afternoon we have made our way from smallholder farms up country, to sorting house, to airport pack house for a tour of the subsidized canteen and staff clinic and finally into the "high care" cutting and packing shed, just in time to see the 100 or so laborers cleaning up and going home early. They work "flexitime". The shift is 7am until 3.40pm or 4pm as laid down in Kenyan labor law, Evans explains. They have targets to meet each day and sometimes if they've completed the order they go home early, he says. A night shift works from 9pm until 5am. But if the orders are big, they also have to work until they are finished. There is no overtime, but performance related payments instead. Once they have reached their targets, the women receive bonuses for packing more, which exceed what they would get if it were calculated as an hourly overtime rate, according to Evans. "We've found that by introducing PRP we can reduce the number of the workforce. The benefit to us is not in salaries but in fewer other costs, such as medical checks. We found they could do twice as much as we thought they could," he says.

The supermarkets will email over orders about midday for what they want put on the flight that night, depending on how much their computerized tills tell them they sold the day before. In this way they can eliminate nearly all financial risk from their end of the chain. Like most other suppliers to the supermarkets, Homegrown has no written contract with them specifying quantities. The orders can go up and down dramatically. "They might increase by five or six coffins. At Christmas it can be a three or four ton increase in one day for sliced or topped and tailed beans. You've just got to get on and do it or you lose the business," David Wakaba, manager of the packing operation tells me. Coffins are the name given to the crates in which the vegetables are transported the 4,250 miles to the UK. A flexible workforce to fill the coffins is essential.

Ten minutes from the airport is Pipeline, a wide dusty road originally built alongside Nairobi's main oil pipes at the point where the outskirts of the city met the savannah with its umbrella-topped thorn trees. It now serves a spreading slum of new high rise blocks and unfinished flats occupied by laborers who have migrated to the capital from the rural areas for work. Here, a steady stream of pick-up trucks and clapped out minivans slows down to disgorge passengers without ever quite stopping. This is where many of the Homegrown factory women live and next day I went to meet them away from work.

The rising dust is meeting the falling light to form the thick haze which marks the turn of the African day. A Coca-Cola seller invites us to sit out of the heat in the shade of a container to wait; the women could be along anytime he says, maybe soon, maybe not so soon. Just after 4.40pm an unventilated Home grown truck pulls up. The driver opens the sealed back doors and the women tumble out. I have come to catch what I assumed would be the 7am shift finishing. But these women say they are the 4.30am shift, who have just finished a 12-hour stint - the 7am shift will be along later they explain, it could be 7pm or 10pm depending on the orders. Gladys (not her real name), like the others, was picked up at 4 o'clock this morning, and worked standing at a stainless steel bench topping and tailing green beans from 4.30am till 11.30am, when she had a break, then on to 4.30pm. She is dead on her feet, so tired she'll have to lean on her friend if we want her to stand anymore, she says.

She came to Nairobi to support her husband and three boys and to try to earn enough money to send them to school. Her children have learned to look after themselves when she doesn't come home. She lives with them in one room in a block nearby where about 100 people share a lavatory and outside tap. For that she pays 2,000 Kenyan shillings a month. Her target at the factory is to top and tail 180kg of beans a day for which she is paid 200 shillings (about £1.60). But they often have to do more and then they get performance bonuses. Typically she will earn just over 6,000 shillings a month after tax and insurance deductions. My translators are impressed, that's a lot by Kenyan standards. But she tells them not to feel too jealous. It's six days a week, she's supposed to have the seventh day off but it's been cancelled this week because there are too many orders. She feels she has no choice about how long she works. And what about the benefits, the free healthcare I was told about at the factory, I ask. "They swab your hands, check you for worms and diseases, take your blood, take your shit, give you worm pills. I would do another job now if you would give me one. Why don't you take me to England?" While we talk, the Home grown truck has crossed to the other side of the road and picked up another crowd - the night shift, she says, off at 5pm. Homegrown says the labor force is never required to work extra hours but that while, in fact, many people want to work longer, the company tries to stick to the Ethical Trading Initiative guidelines of not letting overtime exceed 12 hours a week. Marks & Spencer says that the issue of overtime hours was highlighted during a routine audit in October 2002, and in January 2003, shortly after my visit, Homegrown altered its policy and recruited more staff to reduce its reliance on overtime.

Homegrown, like other African exporters to Europe, grows the vast majority of its vegetables and flowers on large intensive farms. But it also contracts smallholders to grow for it. It was some of these Evans wanted me to see the day before. We head for the Machakos hills up tightly winding tracks hedged with bright yellow African daisies and scented with Lantana bushes. First stop is the Mumbuni horticultural growers' co-operative. This is where the smallholders bring the vegetables they have harvested each morning for grading before they are taken to the factories for packing. An open triangle of rough ground, shaded by mango, jacaranda and pepper trees, marks the centre of the village. Inside a small simple building, three farmers are standing at a wooden table measuring beans against wooden slats. There is a respectful silence as we enter. On the wall is the supermarket specification. Fine green beans are 95mm in length and 5-7.5mm in diameter. The tolerance is only a couple of millimeters either side. And they must be straight. A curved green bean will not do.

Homegrown provides the seeds, and tells the farmers when to plant and spray so that it can take steady delivery of the 60 tons it needs a week to produce 40 tons for export. They spray a maximum of four times in each crop cycle of 48 days, Evans says, and check for pesticide residues. They have also invested heavily in training farmers and workers in safety procedures and do regular blood tests to make sure they are not suffering from chemical exposure. Other horticulture companies are not so meticulous. About 35% of the beans fail to make the supermarket grade, according to Evans. A few of the rejects go to cattle feed or into the local market but most go to waste. Air freight costs £1.20 a kilo, and the retailers, in the middle of a price war, are squeezing their suppliers' harder than ever. It only makes economic sense to transport top grade beans. "There is price deflation," says Evans. We have moved on to stride through prosperous smallholdings where fertile terraces carved out of the steep hills fall down to the river. "The only areas you can save money are chemicals and labor."

Outside Nairobi, most of the labor congregates in shanty settlements around the large scale farms. Take the road from the capital north along the huge geological fault line of the Great Rift Valley, climb up through rolling wooded hills, and as you come over the top a spectacular view of the wide valley floor opens out in front of you. Naivasha, one of only two fresh water lakes in Kenya, gleams like a sheet of silver in the hazy distance below. Originally Masai grazing land, this was one of the first areas settled by white farmers, and was immortalized by the Happy Valley set as one of the most beautiful places in the world. Today, huge patches of white plastic rise like blisters around Naivasha's waters. These are the greenhouses and tunnels of the intensive farms. The lake itself is shrinking and its southern shores are blighted with algal bloom. Local environmentalists blame the water problems here, as in other parts of Kenya, on the country's growing horticultural activities - on excessive abstraction to water the crops, on pollution from pesticide run-off, and on deforestation caused by migrant workers cutting wood for cooking fuel.

Oduor Ong'wen is director of Econews Africa, an organization part-funded by the Swedish government, which promotes sustainable development. He predicts that without a radical change in practices, "in 15 years that area will not be suitable for farming." He acknowledges that trade can contribute to development, but doubts that it will help alleviate Kenyan poverty in its present structure. "Most of the productive land where people were growing food for local consumption has been turned over to land growing food for export. In the 1970s we were largely self-sufficient in food, now we are a net food importing country. That has compromised our food security."

The flower and vegetable companies take a different view. Homegrown says that much more water is lost to "evapotranspiration" each day than to abstraction for crops. "That's not to say that something must be done about controlling extractions and the growers' group are in discussion with the ministry of water to agree on a way forward," the company says. It also disputes the environmentalists' conclusion that intensive horticulture is responsible for ecological damage. "A long-term study by Loughborough University funded by Earth Watch and led by Dr Adam Harper confirms that there has never been a positive sample of either synthetic chemical or fertilizer pollution of the lake from the flower industry." Harper concluded the brown scum in the lake was not caused by the farms but by erosion higher up and the crayfish population which eats the natural vegetation, releasing nitrates and phosphates into the water. > Homegrown has constructed wetlands to treat its waste water before it returns to the lake, and taken steps to reduce its water usage. It has also planted trees to replenish forests cut down by the local population. Tesco says it has given £25,000 to help combat deforestation around Naivasha and to improve health and education.

I have not been invited to visit the intensive farms around Lake Naivasha but have come instead to meet the women laborers. Crammed into a tiny windowless room, they sit quietly on the wooden benches around the wall, many nursing young babies, as they tell their stories. Miriam harvests runner beans on a Homegrown farm. She is picked up by the truck at 5.30am, starts work at 6.25am and goes on until the targets are finished. "Sometimes we work past midnight if they want many coffins. This week it was just till 7pm every night.

Mary is 29 but looks older and works for Homegrown on farms producing carrots, baby corn, green beans, onions and flowers for export from 6am till 5.30pm with one hour for lunch for 3,813 shillings per month. "They don't pay bonuses here however long you work. You have to meet your targets otherwise they give you a warning." She has three young children and she is trying to pay to send them to school but can't manage.

Rose worked on the bean farms until her child was sick. She says she asked for a day off to take him to the hospital. He turned out to have epilepsy and the doctors said she must stay another night until he was stable, so she didn't make it to work next day and she was told not to come back. She has five children and no income now and the epileptic one is still not well.

Esther worked for Homegrown for eight years but was still a casual when she was injured in an accident in 1999, when the work bus crashed. She was pregnant at the time and has not been able to find work since but was not given any compensation.

They all wait patiently, listening silently to each other as we go round the room collecting testimony one at a time. Others tell similar stories of long hours and hardship. They are nearly all alone, left by their husbands or widowed by AIDS. The heat hangs has heavy as stone in the airless room, the weight of quiet suffering is overwhelming. But what about the auditors, I ask, don't they check hours and conditions. Suddenly there is uproar as they all start talking loudly together. When the inspectors come you get sent hone early, if you look sick you are told to take the day off, people are given safety masks for show. Homegrown denies these allegations and says workers can refuse to work overtime and most are on performance related pay schemes. Most are also able to achieve and exceed their targets within the normal working hours, it says. Those who do not want to work overtime are paid the basic wage even if they do not meet their targets, according to the company.

Homegrown adds that it employs 8,500 people and is unable to comment on the circumstances of individual workers without further details (The workers do not wish to be identified and names have been changed.) It added that compensation for workers injured in the four accidents involving workers' transport between 1997 and the end of 2002 were dealt with under the workers' compensation scheme. Employees are only sacked for serious breaches and taking a child to hospital would not count as a serious breach. It also said that 83% of its bean workers in Naivasha were permanent employees and the rest seasonal workers.

Homegrown also denies that any exceptional measures are ever taken when auditors or anyone else visits, what's more, it points out, visits are a frequent event. "We are running a business which is dictated by orders from our customers that vary on a daily basis. We cannot afford to remove labor in the manner suggested, simply because of the presence of auditors. In any case auditors insist on inspecting employment records and these have been found to be entirely satisfactory." It also said that auditors had free access to its workforce and welfare committees and that these allegations had never, to its knowledge, been made to third party organizations by any worker at any time. Marks & Spencer said its audits included confidential interviews with Homegrown workers in the workplace and had found no evidence of any of these practices. Safeway, however, said that while its audits of safety procedures for using pesticides had found everything satisfactory, it was aware that "there are claims that standards are only complied with at times of audits and we will fully investigate these alleged abuses."

When we put these allegations to the supermarkets and to Homegrown, it was clear that Marks & Spencer were very actively engaged in ethical auditing and able therefore to comment in detail. It was also clear on our visit that Homegrown had worked harder than most in the Kenyan horticultural industry to improve the lot of its workers and to reduce its impact on the environment. It provides workers with free advice on family planning and AIDS: UN estimates suggest 15% of the adult Kenyan population is HIV positive, although the figure for Nairobi is thought to be much higher and inevitably some of its workers suffer from the infection too. It also has very strict procedures for when workers using the sharp knives to prepare vegetables cut themselves. They must put their cut hand into a blood bag to contain the cut immediately and any vegetables near them are thrown away and the whole area disinfected.

"Homegrown are trying to make a difference but they are on a journey," M&S technical manager Chris Gilbert-Wood said. On the specific allegations, Marks & Spencer commented that "Homegrown operates a PRP system that we believe provides their staff with a wage well in excess of the legal minimum wage in Kenya. Homegrown has increased the training given to workers so that they gain a better understanding of PRP." Just over six months ago an emergency delegation of buyers from Tesco and M&S, representing all the supermarkets, and executives from the umbrella organization Ethical Trading Initiative flew out to Kenya from London. A confidential report from the fledgling workers' group the Kenya Women Workers' Organization, to the ETI catalogued alleged abuses of workers in the flower sector employed by the leading horticultural companies exporting to Europe, including Homegrown. Kathini Maloba Caines, the founder of KWWO, tired of dealing with official channels for complaint, was threatening to bring flower workers to England to talk to ETI. The supermarkets brokered talks through ETI in Kenya. Representatives from the UK government's department of international development and from the Dutch government joined the investigation.

In the flower sector, the ETI found evidence of excessively long hours, damaging exposure to pesticides on some farms, but not Homegrown ones, and evidence of deception of auditors, but not by Homegrown. Pins Brown, the Kenyan project manager told us: "There are issues in the flower business, and the companies are the same. But there have been major improvements in the last two years." A Kenyan steering committee has been set up with all the interested parties to see how conditions could be improved further and it wants to broaden its investigation to the whole of the horticultural sector.

In response to our investigation, a Tesco spokesman said: "We have been aware of these problems in the Kenyan horticultural industry. We were among the first to join the ETI, which is working hard to rectify them. It needs a change of culture and it can't happen overnight." Safeway added: "We have been a member of ETI since June 2002 and have adopted its code of strict standards to implement socially responsible conditions in the workplace. We recognize that this cannot be achieved overnight. We are aware that there are labor rights abuses in the industry and we are actively working towards educating our suppliers. Our technologists have recently visited Homegrown production sites and from what they have seen have been satisfied with the levels of compliance." Sainsbury's said: "We take this situation extremely seriously and are investigating with our supplier. We are committed to improving conditions for workers in Kenya through the ETI. Over the last two years, three third party ethical audits have been conducted on flower and produce sites. Significant improvements have been made for workers in the flower sector. We strongly support extending this program to those workers in the vegetable sector."

Despite these improvements, Angela Hale, director of Women Working Worldwide, which set up the initial visit from the ETI companies to Kenya, remains concerned about the industry and the demands made by supermarkets. "Since the ETI report there has been pressure on the employers to change things. But the real pressure comes from the production schedule. Similar conditions exist all over Africa and Latin America. It is the production schedules which have the potential to lead to abuses."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.