Why India’s beautiful flowers miss the plane of exports while Kenya & Ethiopia fly high

Greg Stevens

(West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh is home to Asia’s largest orchidarium and the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary. So naturally, the district picked orchids as its signature ODOP—One District One Product. Unfortunately, export of wild orchids is restricted by the CITES or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. While global supply chains become integrated, and fresh flowers from Kenya and Ethiopia are ending up in florist shops in Paris and London, crippling Indian air freight charges, the lack of a coherent export policy on perishables and floriculture and lack of investments in supply chain infrastructure have meant that India has missed the flower power bus.)

The week leading up to Valentine’s Day 2022 saw a frenzied scramble as twenty-four chartered flights set course for Europe from Nairobi Airport. Another half dozen flew to Dubai. These flights were packed not with people, but with 5,000 metric tons of fresh-cut flowers to be sold in European markets. Following a two-year Covid-19 induced shutdown, the global floral market was back with a bang. A flower buying frenzy created a 25 per cent jump in demand and a record high price at the world’s biggest flower auction, Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer in the Netherlands. In the same week, the number of dedicated cargo flights carrying flowers from India was zero.

For almost two decades, global floral markets have been integrated with the demand for flowers — fresh, dried, cut (with stalk), loose (without), and ornamental plants in Europe serviced almost entirely by Kenya and Ethiopia, while that of the US is met by Colombia and Ecuador. It is significantly cheaper (particularly during the winter) to harvest a rose bud in Kenya, fly it in cold storage overnight to Paris or Oslo, and deliver it farm-fresh to a florist’s shop the next morning; than to grow it locally in a greenhouse.

Also read: Agra’s parchinkari — How ODOP is taking Mughal-era marble handicrafts to modern markets

Opportunity India

India exported a modest 15,000 metric tons of flowers, mostly roses worth $78 million in 2020-21. During the same period, Kenya’s exports of cut flowers alone were $596 million (almost eight times that of India), and Ethiopia’s exports amounted to $191 million. While primary buyers and auction houses are in the Netherlands, well-oiled integrated supply chains ensure that farm-fresh flowers travel overnight from Africa to florists across Europe. Africa holds a monopoly over the European rose markets while Thailand and Malaysia control markets for niche, tropical flowers like orchids, and anthuriums which are in high demand in Japan and the UAE. One must ask, how did India miss the bus on this?

India, particularly the North-East, is home to over 1,300 different species of orchids, more than half of which are found in Arunachal Pradesh. Less than 60 km from Tezpur, Assam by road lies the village of Tippi, West Kameng — home to Asia’s biggest orchidarium, and the Tippi Orchid Research Center. Back in the early 1970s, the Governor of the North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh), set up an orchid station in Tippi with the specific objective of “collection, utilisation and commercialisation of orchids.”  India has created world-class infrastructure for orchid cultivation, research and biodiversity, setting up institutes like the National Research Center for Orchids in Pakyong, Sikkim and the Research Center and Orchidarium in Tippi. It even created one of the world’s first orchid sanctuaries, the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary, home to over 200 protected orchids in West Kameng in 1984.

Yet despite the abundance of orchids, presence of advanced and dedicated research centers to promote orchid cultivation, the existence of the Asia’s largest orchidarium and a stated goal of supporting ‘commercialisation’ of orchids, India imported orchids worth Rs 23 crore in 2019 and exported a negligible amount of less than Rs five lakh worth of orchids in the same period. India’s commercial production of orchids was insufficient to even meet its own domestic demand.

In a puzzling move, six districts in North-East India—West Kameng and Siang in Arunachal Pradesh, Champhai and Lawngtlai in Mizoram, Zunheboto and Noklak in Nagaland — selected orchids as their signature product under the ODOP Initiative. In all these districts, known biodiversity hotspots have very limited, organised orchid cultivation, with most orchids growing wild. Therein, lies the first challenge.

Also read: How a tiny, remote Sikkim district became the world’s leading producer of black cardamom

The bottlenecks

While the reasons for selecting orchids under ODOP might have been their abundance in the wild, CITES restricts plucking or exporting wild orchids to prevent illegal trafficking of protected species. This implies that, in practice, to find an actual market for these products, India needs to either revisit the ban on wild orchids or promote organised cultivation. Therein lies the second challenge. West Kameng with a population of less than 90,000 people, has almost no capital or infrastructure available to promote cultivation or market them globally.

The global floriculture industry is valued at almost $9 billion, of which India’s share is negligible. The lack of growth in India’s floriculture market, particularly for tropical flowers like the orchid, stems from a number of issues — logistics and infrastructure challenges like the lack of a developed cold-chain; paternalistic policies that have focused on preventing exploitation of delicate ecosystems; and the remoteness of the North-East. But there is no greater reason than the systemic neglect of the sector, and a lack of imagination and coordination between various agencies.

India’s tale of floriculture is one of missed opportunities. Comparing India’s story to that of Ethiopia with a nonexistent cold chain and a barely functional railway system; almost no research institutions or floriculture expertise and detached, remote, and faraway from global markets like USA, Netherlands or Japan, Ethiopia had all the challenges that India faced and none of the advantages. Yet, in less than fifteen years, it became one of the leading exporters of cut-flowers to European markets, which today contributes over eight per cent to its export earnings.

What did Ethiopia, or Kenya for that matter do to reach this scale? They consciously promoted  floriculture in key international markets, offered tax holidays, organised producers and worked to create infrastructure for its flower farmers. Ethiopia opened a dedicated ‘perishable cargo terminal’ in Addis Ababa to facilitate air-freight exports, expanded cold-storage space, and worked with European markets to meet their rigorous phytosanitary requirements. Kenya similarly set up a dedicated ‘flower terminal’ in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Most, if not all of India’s floriculture export and cultivation is in the southern states with a fixation for roses. It neglects tropical flower varieties such as orchids and anthuriums, which have a fast-growing niche market. Unlike roses and carnations (which require a cold-chain between 0 to 2 degrees), tropical flowers like orchids and anthuriums need only a constant temperature of 10-13 degrees and have a longer shelf life, making their transport more viable and cost-effective.

Today, West Kameng and the Tippi Orchidarium are connected by road and rail to major airports in the region. The proposed East-West Industrial Corridor Highway Project will only enhance their connectivity. If India can export perishable, cut roses from Bengaluru to markets as far away as Japan and Australia, exports from the North-East have an equal chance. The world’s biggest importer of exotic orchids is in Japan, where the Ota Flower Auction is held and most of its current requirement is met by Thailand and Malaysia, which are further away than Guwahati. Although the Ministry of Civil Aviation has shown some interest by providing viability gap funding under its revised RCS-UDAN Cargo Guidelines, even if West Kameng’s orchids make it to Guwahati Airport, they have to deal with crippling air freight rates and an absence of phytosanitary inspection infrastructure at the airport.

The Orchid Research Center in Tippi, West Kameng has produced several hybrid orchids like the Tippi Jubilee Star, Blue Boy, and Green Beauty, which have been recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society, London. However, little work on commercialisation has been done beyond that. These hybrid orchids remain exhibits in a demonstration farm set up at the center, with almost no focus on marketing or promotion in global markets. One stem of Malaysia’s Gold of Kinabalu orchid, a perishable flower from remote North Borneo’s forests, sells at $6,000 in global auction houses—that’s the result of years of promotion in international forums while Indian orchids are yet to feature in auction catalogues.

If remote provinces in Ethiopia can integrate their markets with global perishable product supply chains, maybe soon West Kameng can too. But that requires a grander vision, and a paradigm shift in central legal and logistical policy to export, sell and promote. Home to Asia’s biggest orchidarium, the greatest orchid biodiversity in the world, a high-level of scientific expertise, and a genuinely one-of-a-kind, signature product, these cross-sectoral bottlenecks need to be dealt fast to let India’s orchids bloom globally.

District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.

Sanyukta Samaddar is an IAS officer who is currently a Nodal Officer (SDGs), at NITI Aayog. She tweets @SanyuktaSam1. Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a Director in the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog where he works on the evaluation of government schemes. Views are personal.

(Edited by Pranay Duttaroy)

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