November 13th, 2020

When Life Gives You Roses

A Design Investigation about the Potential of Rose Oil for the Kenyan Horticulture Industry

Text & images © Coltrane McDowell

I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. When I was a kid, every year with my family, we would visit friends who lived next to the Tambuzi rose farm, in the Mount Kenya region. To get to their house, you had to cross the farm property. It was a beautiful place - sun filtered through tall eucalyptus trees and the Burguret river mumbled as it cut the land in two. On entering, I had never paid much attention to the white tented greenhouses scattered around the property. Sheltered beneath the awnings, small flecks of pink, cream and red budding for the harvest. I had known flowers were a major export; you could see the residue of the economy sold on the roadsides in Nairobi, 300 shillings a small bunch. However, tucked under, sheltered from the heat, dry wind, and dust, I had rarely noticed them.

In March of 2020, roses were all I could think of. I had returned to Kenya from The Netherlands set on starting a social enterprise involving distillers in the capital to produce essential oils for a local perfume. Two days after my arrival into the country, the borders had closed. The COVID-19 pandemic I had left Europe for the safety of Kenya had followed in the jet stream. Rumours travelled in the air with fear and mistrust: the disease was brought by white people; it was the Chinese disease; Kenyans were immune, or they would die sooner. Too many stories and too many what 'ifs'. No one knew, and some friends I had made in the distilling community suggested that I leave.

It was around this time that the economy of Kenya went into crisis. The significant connection of Kenyan roses to the European market had major effects within the country. The world saw images of flowers dumped in the millions in Aalsmeer, The Netherlands. This devastation was acute in the largest flower auction house in the world. There were fewer who saw what the mountains of roses left to wither signalled for the Kenyan economy.

Life had given me roses. The circumstances of working in a pandemic were far from perfect, but here was an opportunity. I still had drawings and sketches, and I knew how the distillation of roses could work. Rose oil is one of the most expensive fragrant materials on the market, and with thousands of roses being dumped daily, the idea of trying to capture some of this loss had a magnetic attraction for me. It was at this moment that I thought of the Tambuzi rose farm.

The majority of roses that leave Kenya carry no scent. The roses you see in grocery stores were probably sold at the Aalsmeer auction house. They are cut at a very early stage of flower size to ensure they do not bloom too quickly. Scented roses tend to open too fast, depending on the variety: it is a product loss, a waste. They are unmanageable for a supply chain system that requires predictability and control. The Tambuzi farm dealt in luxury scented roses; roses that would open in your vase after a few hours and scent the function they were intended for in a heavenly aroma. Scented flowers would be the only varieties that could produce fragrance, let alone any minuscule drops of the precious oil.

When I arrived on the farm, I went and spoke to Tim, the owner. I was surprised to learn that he had already been thinking about rose oil. What would rose oil mean for the Kenyan flower economy? And how could it be marketed at a product gain, not a loss? I had initially thought I had found a solution, but after speaking with Tim, the costs alone to produce the oil would not provide a return on investment. Although it is an expensive product, it is equally costly to produce, hence the high price it fetches. Flower production in the country would have to shift from the appearance of the rose and focus solely on its scent. This meant stripping greenhouses and irrigation systems to allow for open-air plots and planting other rose varieties. What Tim could give me, was space, workforce and support to attempt my own distillation experiments.

For three months, I worked on the farm, distilling thousands of roses. Based on distillation models I had seen in Nairobi, I made a low-cost design sourcing material from the neighbouring town, Nanyuki. I would bring wheelbarrows full of heavenly scented flowers, and gently pluck the buds. The distillation drum smelled godly. The first few tests resulted in a smell akin to boiled cabbage, the pinks and creams turned to pasty white and black. It was by the end of the first week that I obtained a liquid with a fragrance reminiscent of the one I had found before distilling, and there on top a small film of precious oil.

As time went on, I began to learn more about the methods of distilling roses. I also learnt more about Kenya's fragile flower relationship with the world, its lucrative appeal, and the major connection Kenya has with The Netherlands. Operations expanded from one distiller to three, from one person to five. As I went around the farm, hearing news of the daily spread of the virus and the economic fallout that was already reaching places like Tambuzi, something like hope stirred within me. I would extend that while the precariousness of the situation was felt across the farm, the act of engaging in rose oil distillation had a similar therapeutic effect for others.

A small bottle on my table is the relic of what remains. Through the process of trying to capture the economic loss, I inevitably found a new way of carrying on with living. Kenya is currently at 60 per cent of its original flower exportation, and things are likely to go back to some economic state of 'normal'. The precariousness of this industry remains, and there is no clear indication of how it will be better prepared in the future. That a flower with a shelf life of a week at best has become the basis of a multi-billion-dollar industry seems confounding. Then again, most things were taken for granted until this year happened. Rose oil production could become a new way forward for the horticultural sector in Kenya. It would mean less investment in greenhouses, and perhaps when I would drive up to Tambuzi, I would see fields of pink dancing in the wind. Until the day comes, I often open the small bottle that sits on my shelf, with all those roses I watched get packed inside. The fragrance slowly comes to life - sweet and tart - as I take in those memories shaded by eucalyptus trees and the mumbling Burguret river cutting the land in two.


Zeke Faux et al., “The Crash of the $8.5 Billion Global Flower Trade”, Bloomberg, 17 Apr. 2020 (accessed April 27, 2020)
“Flower Power”, Research & Development, 14 May 2020

About the author
A graduate of the master’s programme in Social Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven, Coltrane McDowell is an artist and designer based in Rotterdam, where he is currently setting up his own studio practice. He often works with the medium of film as a documentary approach to design within given social systems. / @coltrane_mcdowell


Plant Fever is a project curated by d-o-t-s and produced by the Belgian museum CID Grand-Hornu. Visual identity by Matthieu Visentin. Exhibition scenography by Benoît Deneufbourg