Thorny development

Ethiopia’s flower industry thrives thanks to Europe’s energy crisis and low wages

“Addis Ababa” translates as “new flower”. On arterial roads of the Ethiopian capital with swift connections to the airport, millions of roses are indeed blooming in huge greenhouses. Due to the energy crisis in Europe, Ethiopia’s flower industry is experiencing its greatest boom. But the people in the country benefit little from it.

Blumensträusse mit Preisschild stehen zum Verkauf

Roses from Ethiopia – here in a store in Denmark

Coffee is Ethiopia’s most important export, followed by flowers. 183,000 employees in 84 companies in the flower sector generate export sales of around 200 to 400 million US dollars per year. According to the National Bank of Ethiopia, flowers accounted for one seventh of the country’s total export revenue in 2020.


In the latest Ethiopian fiscal year, this sum was increased even further: Ethiopian Airlines cargo planes took flowers worth a total of $628 million out of the country, mostly roses. This makes Ethiopia the fifth largest exporter of flowers after the Netherlands, Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya.


The reason for the boom in the winter months is also the energy crisis in Europe due to the Ukraine war, Tewodros Zewdie, board member of the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association, told the Ethiopian newspaper «The Reporter» at the end of December 2022. The cost of heating and lighting greenhouses in the Netherlands and other European producing countries had become so high that some producers had to give up, he said. Others are trying to save on energy costs, and the quality of the flowers is suffering as a result.

Women in particular work in the flower industry in Ethiopia – often under undignified conditions (Photo: Mogens Engelund)

“Our air freight costs are even lower than other producing countries like Kenya”, Tewodros told the newspaper happily. «With the existence of Ethiopian Airlines and the strength of its operations, we are now in a better position.” For Valentine’s Day 2022 alone, the airline’s cargo subsidiary flew 110 million flowers from Kenya and Ethiopia in refrigerated cargo holds to rich countries in Europe, Asia and the U.S. in a fortnight.


Freight costs are part of the problem: Producers can’t avoid those costs, so many try to save on labor costs. Very little money is left with workers in the industry. Air freight to rich countries accounts for 59 percent of production costs, according to a study. Packaging materials account for eleven percent of costs. Fertilizers and chemicals account for 19 percent – most of these production materials have to be imported from the developed countries and therefore flow back to the North. Only eleven percent is spent on the wages of the workers, especially women (80 percent of the workforce are women). This means that a saying by Colombian flower workers also applies to their Ethiopian colleagues:

“The lovers get the flowers, the workers get the thorns.”

Meskel-Fest: Meskelblumen

Meskel flowers transform the landscape into bright carpets

They are often exposed to pesticides with inadequate protection. According to a 2016 survey, female workers were fobbed off with a monthly wage of 39 euros. Many operators do not allow workers to form associations. According to a 2018 report by the Global Living Wage Coalition, workers’ wages on flower farms are so low that workers and their families cannot afford even one basic nutritious meal a day – even if that were their only expense. The report continues, “Many Ethiopian flower farm workers run out of money for food toward the end of the month, so they often resort to buying food on credit.” A living wage would have to be two and a half to three times the actual wage.


With its agricultural development projects, Menschen für Menschen aims to strengthen small-scale farming structures rather than the export economy. Families should increase yields on their own land to ensure their own supply instead of remaining in precarious employment. But if possible, they should also produce surpluses – of staple foods for local markets. For example, irrigation systems help reduce the need to import wheat to Ethiopia.


Away from the greenhouses, Ethiopia is dominated not by thorny roses but by what at first glance appears to be a very inconspicuous flower, especially at the Ethiopian New Year in September. For the people, the small «meskel» meadow flowers are a symbol of the beauty of their homeland: millions upon millions of them then cover the landscape with a bright yellow carpet.


The Menschen für Menschen Foundation promotes women’s independence with microcredit and fosters agricultural development for smallholder farmers. Learn more about our projects:

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