A flower business success after loss of founder

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Hans Medal

BY VICTOR ADAR

A shrewd entrepreneur draws strength from the troubles of starting up, navigating the tough times and growing stronger when things start clicking. With determination to grow especially when a founder passes on and cash stops flowing like manna like before, the individual who takes over must keep his or her thinking caps on. Well, the most significant moment is when customers are still happy about products and services being offered months or years after demise of a venture’s original founder.

Johannes Ewaldus Maria Zwager popularly known as Hans Zwager purchased Oserian Farm in 1969, when it was a cattle ranch with just 16 employees. Using his creativity and his appetite for risk, he established a new concept – flowers for export. A long the way his out of the box idea would lead him to develop Geothermal Energy at Oserian, which now provides electric power to the entire farm and uses geothermal heat to control diseases in the rose houses, which has greatly reduced the need for chemical fungicides.

Great that the Netherlands born founded export farm, Oserian Development Company in the early 80s marking the beginning of a business which would drive an industry to grow into one of the top export earners for Kenya – a key employer and driver of a major social-economic transformation in the region.

Anyone knows first hand how flowers sell like hot cake especially during the month of love – flowers are most sought after especially during Valentines Day. The business of flowers is paying off big time that an estimated two million people depend on the industry today through direct and indirect employment at both the farm and across the value chain.

Nothing can actually compare to export of flowers. Non-traditional markets such as Sydney and Melbourne, in Australia, are the newest hot market with Kenya Airways Cargo now targeting to cash in on lifting 30 tonnes of cut flowers to Australia. But as Kenyans and the world at large remain to be keen buyers, one thing stands out, very few individuals know the pioneers behind this flowery sector, and how the sector has grown to be where it is currently.

On December 20th last year, Oserian Stadium in Naivasha was filled with family, staff, friends and relatives celebrating the life of Zwager who passed on at the age of 90. The enterprising old man was one of the leading pioneers in Kenyan horticulture. He pushed Oserian to higher heights becoming the model for flower export to the Dutch and EU markets. Mr Zwager started up the Tele Flower Auction (TFA) in the Netherlands, the first electronic flower auction designed to promote and support the Kenyan flower exporters. He also saw the opportunity to trade flowers directly to the UK supermarkets and established World Flowers in 1989, allowing Kenyan farmers to trade directly with the European High Street superstores.

As his business territory expanded and thrived, Zwager the man encouraged the development of a social complex, which included housing for 6000 employees and their families. Today, Oserian is one of the most socially conscious ventures with crèches, primary and secondary schools and health care for thousands of children and adults.

The unstoppable Zwager was born in the Netherlands in 1926 but arrived in Kenya to start up ABN bank in Nairobi in the early 1950s. Here he met June Patricia Ashworth and after a short whirlwind romance, they married. The couple started their own business of importing agricultural spare parts and chemicals for growing crops. Hans recognized that newly independent Kenya had a huge agricultural potential and would need support services, so he set up Kleenway Chemicals in Nairobi and Antipest Ltd in Mombasa in the 1960s.

In 1978 he built a factory that produced the first locally manufactured knapsack sprayers in Kenya. The Dutch designed Hobra Sprayers were enthusiastically welcomed by small-scale farmers as spare parts and repairs were now always locally available. Hans was committed not only to business but also had long sought for a sustainable harmony between agriculture and the environment. In 1995 he created a 18,000 acre sanctuary to protect the local wildlife and ecosystem.

Presently, Oserian Farm and its green houses are surrounded by wildlife, which Hans saw as a fitting tribute to the beauty of Kenya. His zeal and dedication to the horticulture industry would not go unnoticed. In 1998, the former President of Kenya, the Honourable Daniel Arap Moi, presented Hans Zwager Kenya’s Medal of Honour, the ‘Moran of the Burning Spear’ in recognition for his role in directly developing what had by then become a corner stone of the Kenyan economy.

Indeed, the legacy that the old man left behind is not one to easily forget. Peter Zwager, who is the Chairman and son of the late Zwager says that his father sowed the seeds of the flower industry from bare lands near Lake Naivasha to grow the beautiful flowers we are currently proud of.

A former worker and sitting Narok East MP, Lemaken Aramat, knows too well the advantages of working in the flower industry. He says Oserian gave him the foundation he needed to be a lawmaker – the legislator served as the farm’s Maasai Community Liaison Officer, a position that enabled him to create useful grassroots connection with people who voted him to Parliament in 2013.

It shows that what an entrepreneur ought to look at before jumping into the business arena is the ‘how do I create a 1000 years worth venture.’ Boosting investment growth beyond the founders’ imagination is the best way to beat bad economy. The people who will remain behind will keep the fire burning.

Zwager’s is a beautiful story of a powerful venture, a good lesson to those who are at the helm but still hold on the thinking that the best way to make a company profitable is to push employees a side. Things go well when an employer and an employers share the same vision. Let your passion (and whatever you do) motivate you. If you have an idea, it is wise to ensure that it is implemented. That is what will determine how far a venture will go.