Flower exporter goes green to cut production costs

Company embraced environmentally friendly technology to keep down operation costs and match its clients’ expectation.

On entering Oserian Farm at Olkaria, in the southern part of Lake Naivasha, you are ushered in by a kaleidoscope of colours from their wide range of roses.

Along the path that leads to the farm’s offices, are hundreds of sheep grazing leisurely as if they are home. As we discover, the sheep are indeed home. They are ‘employees’ whose role is to trim grass in the farm, in a bid to reduce the breeding points for harmful pests and insects.

Getting into the farm’s main offices, one is welcomed by neatly arranged trophies. Among them is an ‘Innovation Award 2016’. The award, we learn, was awarded to the farm by the International Procurement and Logistics Company, during the Annual Vendor Conference in 2016.

While the trophy already indicates that this farm is indeed keen on innovation, you will need to do a tour around for you to discover that there is actually a lot more to this ground breaking entity. Seemingly, Oserian is not your usual flower farm; it is an innovation hub in the flower industry, where geothermal energy is utilised to boost flower growth.

While the mention of geothermal power creates thoughts of electricity generation, here the same steam is used to heat their expansive greenhouses and helps Oserian to grow healthy flowers and reduce the amount of chemicals they use to safeguard their crops.

Oserian has the world’s largest geothermal heating system and heats seven million litres of water daily. In Africa, it is the only farm that uses geothermal power in this way. Neil Hellings, the Managing Director, says use of geothermal energy is among the measures that Oserian is undertaking in a bid to cope with the effects of climate change.

“We have metrological data of the last 44 years, and are therefore well aware of the changing weather patterns,” he says

During the night, he adds, outside temperatures are quite low and on rare conditions, there if even frost. Anything below 12 degrees impacts negatively on rose production. The low temperatures hinder growth for flowers, some of which will effectively hibernate until temperatures are higher during the day.

As he walks us through the greenhouses, Hellings shows pipes that pass hot water within and another one which circulates carbon dioxide – a key food for stimulating increased production. The science behind use of hot water, he explains is that it helps in keeping the greenhouses warm throughout the night.

Some flower varieties, he explains, requires warm temperatures throughout both day and night. The farm’s Vuvuzela varieties for example, require constant heating because they are such a sensitive type of rose.

From the well that produces geothermal power, runs three pipes to the greenhouse; one of them distributes hot water, the other transports back warm water after being used in greenhouses heating, while the third one transports carbon dioxide.

The farm’s Geothermal Engineer, Fred Apollo says they have boosted production by 10-15 percent by heating greenhouses using geothermal power. Out of a total of 124 acres of roses in this farm, 50 hectares are heated using geothermal power and they are now exploring how this can be increased to heat 100 hectares.

The carbon dioxide, which is a by-product of geothermal power, is emitted to greenhouses through microscopic holes. This gas is very vital in photosynthesis, thus boosting the plant’s growth creating not only more roses of a longer length and bigger head size, but crucially a much healthier plant. This enables Oserian to use less chemicals than would otherwise have been the case.

Currently, the farm injects 18 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide, daily. However, plans are underway to increase the Carbon Dioxide used to 216 tonnes daily, according to Hellings who sees this next piece of innovation as being of utmost importance to his business.

“If we attain our target of injecting 216 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide daily, we will be among the world’s top Carbon Dioxide users in agriculture and it will be an important component in our drive to achieve Carbon Neutral status”.

Even if flowers were grown under perfect humidity, sunlight and temperature, but lacked Carbon Dioxide, Hellings notes, there would be no photosynthesis.

During the night outside temperatures are quite low and on rare conditions, there if even frost. The low temperatures hinder growth for flowers, some of which will effectively hibernate until temperatures are higher during the day.
Therefore,  plants would not produce the sugars they need in order to grow. The farm’s innovation, he says, greatly increases the yields. In all that Oserian does there is evidence of passion for the environment and their adopting green energy – both geothermal and more recently a large Solar Powerplant is foremost in their commitments to be great custodians.

The farm has replaced more than half its diesel-fuelled trucks with electrically charged ones and the target is to have all the trucks compliant. Better still, the electric ones, which are imported from Netherlands, are charged using electricity generated from their two geothermal power stations.

“So far we have brought in seven electric trucks and we have six larger ones at sea on their way to us,” says Hellings, adding, “By the end of 2018, we really want to be carbon neutral and have already reduced our fossil fuel consumption by over 75 percent.”

Besides using geothermal power, Oserian employs other methods in a bid to ensure minimal chemical use. In the greenhouses for example, cuttings of blue plastic jars are smeared with glue, and hanged to attract thrips.

“We also use other biological products like garlic and neem to repel thrips,” says Christine Karambu, one of the farm’s Senior Rose Growers. As the international markets continue to demand for minimal use of chemicals, this farm is striving to find biological solutions to control pests and diseases.

About 15 years ago, the farm started Integrated Pests Management System (IPM), by using naturally occurring fungus and insects to combat the pest and diseases. Currently, the farm produces over 10 million insects weekly. Again, using geothermal heat to keep the production area nice and warm.

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