A rose is a rose is a rose, unless it's from the Federated Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. That's according to growers of the flower from that country, whom I had an opportunity to meet at a reception and dinner at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington in March.
Throughout the large reception room at the embassy, there were literally hundreds of roses of all colors and hues — bright yellow, brilliant red, deep orange, hot pink — lining the walls and placed on pedestals. They had been shipped in for the event, and the growers proudly talked about the numerous varieties that can be found on their farms that were in the room.
Sadly, when many people think of Ethiopia, famine and drought are what usually come to mind and not the velvety, sturdy roses that are being grown there in increasing numbers and exported worldwide. It's no surprise that roses do so well there because Ethiopia has an agriculture-based economy, with 75 percent of its exports being agricultural products such as coffee, sesame seeds and flowers.
Seifu Bedada is the general manager of a flower farm and company not far from Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa.
"The high altitude of my country is what makes it perfect for the roses to grow in abundance," he said during the reception.
He said the high elevations of many regions near the capital are why their roses have sturdier, thicker skin and can grow up to 6 feet tall. They also have a longer shelf life of 30 days, if taken care of properly.
Bedada told me that the rose industry started in Ethiopia about nine years ago with a few growers such as himself. Now 2.7 billion rose stems are shipped from Ethiopia annually.
"Ninety percent of the roses that are grown in Ethiopia go to auction in Holland, and from there, they can go anywhere in the world — like Japan, Korea, here or anywhere," said Leonard Manning, former director of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who helped organize the event. "I was in Ethiopia before Valentine's Day and 747 jets, full of roses, were being shipped to Europe daily."
The Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, Girma Birru, attended the event. He is also the country's former trade minister and was seeking direct ways to get the roses into the American market. Manning is currently an airport authority consultant and is helping the agency increase cargo traffic at Dulles International Airport.
"We looked at importing roses from Ethiopia as a good start in increasing cargo business at the airport because Dulles has this country's only nonstop service from Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Air," Manning said.
The nonstop airline service from Addis Ababa to Dulles began a few months ago and opened up a direct link for Ethiopian rose growers to the American market. The airline's Boeing 777 nonstop jet service is crucial to the deal for two reasons, I was told. There were no good connections to get the flowers here without having to first ship them on long flights through Europe, where the roses would have to be taken off the plane at some point and reloaded onto connecting flights.
In addition to the time involved, Manning said, "Those planes didn't have large cargo space, but the 777 can hold up to 20 tons of cargo."
Since the embassy event, which was held to introduce Ethiopian growers to the media and American flower retailers, the roses from Ethiopia have been arriving at Dulles to the tune of about 20,000 rose stems a week. Ethiopian officials predict that number will eventually increase to 500,000 rose stems being imported here weekly, via Dulles.
Bedada hopes to begin shipping roses to the states from the greenhouses at his 5-hectare farm soon, which he said he plans to expand, given the new opportunities in America. Embassy officials say in addition to the benefits of the direct shipments to the airport and cargo companies doing business there, much-needed jobs are being created in Ethiopia around the growing industry. For formerly unemployed Ethiopians who have jobs because of the country's burgeoning rose industry, a rose is a rose and also a means for a better life.
Gwendolyn Glenn is a former Laurel Leader staff writer.