More Thoughts on Sustainability in Africa

Since I just posted about my thoughts on sustainable energy in Africa, I might as well follow up with more musings on sustainable development there. Although most of my time in Kenya was spent in Nairobi, I also had a chance to explore Lake Naivasha’s industry and ecosystem. I met, for example, with the VP of Finance and Administration of Homegrown Ltd, a huge floriculture company specializing in roses, exporting hundreds of millions each year. A few things struck me from the encounter.

First, Lake Naivasha, the source of water for the entire local flower industry, is changing. It is drying up and its water is becoming more polluted. While this is partially due to natural cycles, it is mostly attributed to man. Homegrown and other florists in the Lake Naivasha Growers Group surprised me with their recognition of culpability and their proactivity in addressing the issue despite no government requirement to do so. For example, they have planted local shrubs along the banks to slow runoff and filter the water that enters the lake.

Second, Homegrown is committed to reducing its environmental impact through elimination of chemical-based pesticides. However, the need to reduce rose-eating pests remains. To strike this balance, Homegrown founded another company, DuduTech (“Dudu” means “insect” in Swahili.), which develops “pesticides” by using naturally occurring insects that prey on the pests. This includes predatory insects, parasitic bugs, and a host of other approaches that all have the same objective: neutralize the pests without introducing chemicals into the environment. Cool stuff.

Finally, however, I don’t see how the model for this industry is sustainable at all. In a country (nay, on a continent) where hunger is rampant, thousands of prime agricultural hectares are being used for flowers instead of food crops. The flowers (and the small amount of food crops that actually are produced) are exported immediately (Time from harvest to European retailer shelves is 24-48 hours.) which incurs huge environmental costs for refrigeration and transportation. Local labor is employed (and treated very fairly, it seems), but the vast majority of profit is captured by the company owners, which are largely foreign. I can’t blame the owners for their choices because the economics clearly support them, but there has to be a better way. Local companies using the land for production of locally distributed food would result in Europeans not having roses for their dining tables but millions fewer hungry Africans.

What do you think, how can sustainability be introduced in environments (no pun intended) in which the economics are stacked against it? Is it the responsibility of the government to step in and change the economic environment? Should the onus be on businesses to do the right thing? Or should consumers step up and drive policy with their votes/dollars?

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