Acres of flowers carpeting the ground in bold hues might seem more at home in a Monet painting or the land of Oz, but it's a sight that's become a familiar part of the Ethiopian landscape.
Known among the international markets as a leading supplier of coffee and livestock, the Horn of Africa nation has a growing number of entrepreneurs seizing the opportunity to plant in the country's rich soil and produce roses that bloom larger and longer than those grown in other countries.
Vendors in Japan, Russia, the Netherlands and Germany have embraced the relatively new commodity, but the distant farms pose a logistical challenge for U.S. markets.
That's all changing, as one local airport is making an effort to take advantage of the burgeoning market and help the local economy blossom.
According to the Ethiopian Horticulture Producer Exporters Association, roses are the most commonly grown flower in the country.
Ethiopia's high altitude and nutrient-rich soil make an ideal climate for growing hardy flowers, and if properly cared for, the roses can last up to 30 days.
They come in colors ranging from the palest cream to a dark purple that could be mistaken for black.
"We come from a country that has emerged from a long history of famine, drought, war and desperation, and is entering the realm of the nations of the not-so-desperate," said Tsegaye Abebe, chairman of the Ethiopian Horticulture Producer-Exporters Association and manager of his own flower and vegetable farms. "We also come with the new image of Ethiopia; a smiling, flowery and colorful one."
About 50,000 people now are employed at more than 100 flower-growing farms, and about 85 percent of them are women. Some of the larger farms, which stretch out over acres of land, include dorms, schools and medical centers to accommodate the workers.
In the past 10 years, Ethiopia has increased the amount of money it makes on exporting its roses from $300,000 in 2001 to $200 million at the end of 2011.
"Ethiopia was not on the list of world flower producers years back," Ethiopian Ambassador Girma Birru Geda said during a recent networking event at his embassy, but "my country has a plan to increase the annual flower revenue."
Open for business
In November 2010, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority welcomed a new arrival to Washington Dulles International Airport: a Boeing 777. The plane was the first of five in an Ethiopian Airlines fleet scheduled to fly regularly into Dulles. During an intercontinental celebration of the plane's rollout, then-MWAA Vice Chairman Leonard Manning was introduced to Mr. Tsegay, who raved about his native country's flowers.
"I started following up on it, talking to the Ethiopian Embassy, and I made some calls around to florists and asked where are their roses coming from," Mr. Manning said. "I found most of the flowers came from South America. The main reason is, there are no direct flights to the U.S. The cost of shipping from Europe and the ability to carry that cargo on flights was limited."
The massive 777, which has enough cargo space to hold 20 tons, provided a nonstop shipping option between the two countries, and as Mr. Manning and fellow airport officials realized, a new opportunity for economic development.
The goal of promoting the Ethiopian rose market is to use it as a "springboard" for the cargo-shipping capability at the airport, said Joseph Maly, who is the head of air-cargo development at Dulles.
Not only is there the cargo-handling community, Mr. Maly said, but it also "brings in more manufacturing and distribution" businesses, which "at that point benefits the regional area."
Based on the location of the airport and its proximity to major roadways and railways, about 56 percent of the nation's population can be reached overnight by truck.
The latest MWAA Economic Impact Study, from 2009, shows the total impact of airport-dependent industries amounted to $1 billion in labor income in Virginia.
Stephen Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis, at George Mason University, agreed that building on the airport's assets is "critically important to the local economy."
"This is a modern version of a transshipping point, where you change modes," Mr. Fuller said. "To do that, you need warehouses, accountants, lawyers, trucking, all sorts of professional services that go with repositioning this stuff, whether it be flowers," or another product.
"It's a big multiplier effect: The jobs that depend on jobs that depend on jobs," he said.
Jeff Serafini, a purchasing manager at Potomac Floral Wholesale familiar with the rose endeavor, said from his company's perspective, there's an interest in the direct route between the Washington area and distant flower farms of Ethiopia.
"The interest we have is not to see the Ethiopian market replace or supplant what 's already being done well in South America. We're much more interested in the varieties that are not being brought to the United States," Mr. Serafini said. "That's exciting to me. We're supportive of it, and hopefully, something will fit into the mix of what we provide to our customers."
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