It's not all rosy in the flower business

Valentine's month is bloom time, but things remain thorny in this wilting economy

10 February 2019 - 07:34 By ADELE SHEVEL
In a time of high demand, Andrew Masibuko attends to roses at Jason's Flowers at Multiflora flower market, in Johannesburg. Picture: Alon Skuy
In a time of high demand, Andrew Masibuko attends to roses at Jason's Flowers at Multiflora flower market, in Johannesburg. Picture: Alon Skuy

This week will be Bongiwe Moeli's first Valentine's Day as the owner of Cottage Flowers in Hyde Park Corner - the business she bought in April last year.

Moeli worked in media for nearly 20 years, but wanted a change. "I was finished; it was very demanding," she says. "I had no life, really."

She took some time to figure out what she wanted to do, a kind of sabbatical. "I think it was a month after [she'd left her job] that I just locked eyes with a lily in the kitchen at home . and that was it. Flowers for me are not a pretentious thing, they're just part of life. I suppose that's always inspired me."

Moeli started in her kitchen, sending flowers to friends for feedback. She trained as a florist and expanded to work from a cottage. Cottage Flowers, meanwhile, is 50 years old this year and is something of an institution in the centre. Though Moeli was looking at other stores and formats, it's the shop she really wanted.

"If you want to be a serious player either you own your own business or you're in events," she says.

Now her early mornings are taken up by auctions at Multiflora in City Deep, Johannesburg, two or three times a week at 7am, sometimes more. She would like to buy some flowers directly from suppliers in Krugersdorp and in Limpopo, and some regional players such as Kenya and Ethiopia. But that's for bigger operators.

Moeli faced significant challenges getting to this point. Banks wouldn't finance the business.

"As an up-and-coming entrepreneur, you see all these ads about banks saying they support you - and some bankers even admit it's all a gimmick. It's a lie. Banks, they'll only support you if you have money."

Moeli used her savings and some financial support from family and friends.

"The business doesn't make a profit. Last year was a horrible year; we're still in that technical recession," she says. But she's reinvesting in the business, and the Parisian-styled shop is buzzing with calls and customers. In time, she'd like to grow her own flowers.

"I'd really like to get into growing because I think it makes sense. And with flowers, the margins are also a bit tricky if you're a florist. I think as much as a lot of people love flowers, they don't associate cost with quality."

The flower industry is pretty secretive, especially ahead of Valentine's Day, with growers and florists loath to reveal what they plan to charge.

Moeli said that normally, in the off-season, a stem costs R3 or R4, but a week before Valentine's Day a florist will pay between R18 and R25 a stem. She said she would probably need 15,000 to 20,000 red roses during the Valentine period.

Louise Scholtz, marketing manager of Uniflo, the largest supplier of roses in the country, said demand for red roses over Valentine's surges about 400% compared with an average week.

Meanwhile, florists are phoning each other to find out what they're selling roses for, pretending to be interested customers.

Riana du Plessis, the owner of Versilia Flowers, one of the seven large rose farms in the country and the biggest supplier of roses to Multiflora, says they usually sell about one million stems a month. Around Valentine's, there's up to an additional half of the normal sales. "It contributes about 15% to our annual income."

Du Plessis says there are big challenges facing rose (and flower) growers at the moment. They are subject to the extreme changes in weather patterns, and some are shifting away from climate-controlled greenhouses to natural-ventilation growing, due to higher electricity costs and power failures. This is much more difficult to manage. The cost of flower growing has also skyrocketed due to the high price of fertilisers and chemicals, and increased wages.

"Everything we do is labour-intensive, from spraying to cutting to packing," says Du Plessis. The tough economic situation has a negative effect on prices and demand, too. If it wasn't for functions and weddings we'd really suffer," he says.

Plus, there's competition from flower growers in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Of course, the lead-up to the day didn't start this week. Sharon Louw, CEO of flower delivery network Interflora, which takes orders and dispatches them to florists throughout the country, said orders for Valentine's Day come through from January.