Water Footprints

Water Footprints:

Lessons from Kenya’s floriculture sector

Article by Wayne Visser

An International Sustainable Business column for The Guardian

There are flowers to fit every occasion. But if you are celebrating World Water Week (26-31 August), you might want to think twice. A single rose – grown in Kenya, as many of the world’s cut flowers are – takes around 10 litres of water to produce, with the so-called water footprint, or virtual water export, of Kenya’s floriculture industry having more than doubled over the past 15 years, mostly to supply the Netherlands (69%), the UK (18%) and Germany (7%).

This notion of virtual water – the water embedded in the things that we trade – is gaining visibility as awareness of our global water crisis increases. I remember first getting to grips with the idea a few years ago when I interviewed Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry, for the University of Cambridge Top 50 Sustainability Books project. According to his calculations, to get us through the day, it takes about a hundred times our own weight in water.

Of course, water footprints are not the only impacts we find in our global supply chains. There are issues of labour rights, climate change, transparent governance, biodiversity loss and economic development, to mention but a few. The challenge is to manage and minimise the negative impacts. This is where I believe the example of Kenya’s cut-flower industry can help us to tease out some hard-won lessons, starting with the story behind the Horticultural Ethical Business Initiative (HEBI).

The seeds of the HEBI process were sown in November 1999 when local civil society organisations mounted a successful campaign against workers’ rights violations in Cirio Delmonte, one of Kenya’s largest pineapple growers. The success of this campaign raised concerns in the flower industry, prompting stakeholders to develop the Kenya Standard on Social Accountability and a Voluntary Private Initiative to oversee its implementation.

However, the real impetus for HEBI came from the pressure exerted by transnational alliances of NGOs and consumer groups. The Kenya Women Workers Organisation (KEWWO) was funded by the UK-based Women Working Worldwide (WWW) to gather evidence of the Ethical Trade Initiative Base Code violations. Their report catalogued various unacceptable conditions, from pesticide poisoning to sexual harassment and rape, and spurred a campaign dubbed Produce Safely or Quit. At the same time, the Kenya Human Rights Commission issued a three month ultimatum to flower producers to improve working conditions, failing which they would go international in their campaign.

When the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) was alerted to these serious labour rights violations in 2002, several of their corporate and NGO members visited Kenyan flower producers. In fear of losing their most significant market, Kenyan stakeholders came together for the first time to lay the groundwork for the formation of HEBI. What I find particular interesting is that the Horticultural Ethical Business Initiative (HEBI) did not arise from a vacuum of voluntary codes. On the contrary, there were already seven different international ethical codes being applied. However, they seemed to lack effectiveness and credibility …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2012) Water Footprints: Lessons from Kenya’s Floriculture Sector, The Guardian, 20 August 2012.

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Kenya 2010 Notes

02 February 2010

Last week, I was hosted by Ufadhili Trust to deliver a 2 day workshop on CSR in Nairobi, Kenya. As I was last in Kenya 20 years ago when I attended an AIESEC African Leadership Development Seminar, it was wonderful to return and compare my impressions.

The biggest changes have been political. In 1990, Daniel Arap Moi was still president (from 1978 to 2002) and ruled a one-party state with an iron hand. My impression back then was of relative stability, but no great sense of prosperity or advancement. I recall that the hotel we stayed at on the coast in Mombasa had a water-cut and the security guard carried a bow and arrow. Also, it took 9 hours to drive the 440 km of pot-hole ridden road between Nairobi and Mombasa.

Today, Kenya has a multi-party democracy under President Mwai Kibaki, although the disputed 2007 general election (and post-election violence) has led to a coalition government in which Raila Odinga shares power as Prime Minister. Apart from changes in politics, the economy is stronger (despite unemployment estimated at 40%) and the roads are noticeably improved.

In fact, the roads sparked one of the first lively debates in the workshop. Why? Because they are built by Chinese contractors. The “Chinese in Africa” topic is a real hot potato, and fascinating from a CSR perspective. The Chinese are bringing massive business investment to Africa (especially in infrastructure), but at what cost? They are accused of low labour, ethical and environmental standards, as well as taking away local employment.

I don’t fully buy the “evil China” story (and I fear a new xenophobia is taking hold around the world), for a number of reasons. First, I would far rather see investment in infrastructure than development aid going to Africa. Second, the Chinese government is starting to show concern about its tarnished reputation abroad, so I expect pressure and standards to rise in the coming decade. And third, the Chinese are not all about low costs and poor standards. They have an incredible work ethic and high productivity level, which I believe introduces healthy competition and challenges attitudes of entitlement in countries like Kenya.

The other theme that emerged strongly in the workshop was corruption, although there was less “fight” in this debate. I almost sensed a feeling of resignation among most of the participants. How do you fight a disease that – like cancer – is so endemic in government, business and society at all levels?

One refreshing voice in this debate was Ken Njiru, Executive Director of Uungwana Resource Institute and one of the leading proponents of business ethics in Kenya. He believes that corruption needs to be branded in the public and business consciousness as “ushenzi”, which means “barbaric”, “primitive” or “backward”. This is contrasted with “uungwana”, which means “civilised” or “advanced” or “righteous”.

As far as general CSR goes, Kenya is still mostly stuck in the PR/philanthropy mode. However, there are inspiring examples of CSR 2.0 practice, such as Vodafone/Safaricom’s M-PESA scheme, which allows the unbanked to transfer money by mobile phone text. Similarly, Equity Bank, which has successfully targeted the poorest sectors of society and now, with 4.1 million accounts, makes up over 52% of all bank accounts in Kenya.

I look forward to watching how Kenya can continue to develop and inspire, both within Africa and the world, as it takes its CSR agenda forward. Thank you to Director Mumo Kivuitu and everyone at Ufadhili. Keep up the great work!

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