Tycoon Sudhir’s story of Rosebud’s resilience amid Covid-19 could inspire distressed entrepreneurs

With the Covid-19 pandemic putting the country on its knees, a lot has changed in the business world and in the lives of many people across the globe. As businesses continue fighting to survive in unchartered waters – others especially depending on travel such as airlines, hotels, tour companies, etc, pray we go through this phase faster than it is doing.

Millions of workers have been sent home with little or nothing to go back to – seriously, many business are closing one by one as the pandemic shows no sign of leaving any time soon as every business owner or manager is in search of solutions on how to keep in the game – at least survive this storm.

However, there is a silver lining at every dark cloud – and it doesn’t hurt borrowing some fire from a neighbor on a cold day.

We therefore bring you a story of Uganda’s premier flower company which has swum against the current to remain operational despite the tough times in supplying very sensitive products such as flowers to European markets under strict Covid19 regulations.

Roses are a blessing to humanity. Even in tough times, they remind us of love, hope, faith, life.

An interview excerpt with Ugandan billionaire Sudhir Ruparelia, discussed with him how his flower company, Rosebud, continued to operate during the turbulent 2020 and lessons drawn from the experience.

Dr. Ruparelia admits that no one knows everything, but, in such situations, there is a need to remain professional, keep the contracts running for all suppliers, as well as keep the workforce alive.

Below is the story of Rosebud as told by’s Chris Bishop, which could inspire others wondering how to go through the Covid19 storm.

Mr Bishop narrates;

Rosebud is the largest flower grower in Uganda – a 60-hectare farm producing 350,000 rose stems-a-day for export to Europe in a business worth about $15 million-a-year. This year, there are plans to expand by another 10 hectares to produce 500,000 rose stems in a business that appears to bring Sudhir as much pleasure as it does dollars. He says, like most of his successful ventures, it came by accident.

“What happened was about 20 years ago two of my friends came to me and they told me they had acquired a farm that had gone into receivership and they wanted me to join hands with them. So, I told them: ‘Look I’m not really a farmer, I am not in the agricultural business; I am in the service industries, you know, and good at what I am doing. They said, OK, we want you not to be known in the running of the farm, we want you to be a sleeping partner.

This was at a time when Uganda was trying to tap into the flower business – a trail blazed fairly successfully by neighbours Kenya. Yet, in Uganda,of the 25 farmers who started up 20 years ago, 21 failed.

Sudhir made sure Rosebud was one of the four survivors by ploughing $15 million into the farm to increase economies of scale, building metal greenhouses – replacing flimsy wood- along with computerized irrigation systems. To this day, the farm costs $675,000-a-month to run, but has the advantage of weather allowing roses to grow all year round.

It was a bed of roses until COVID-19 struck wiping out a huge slice of the Ugandan economy.

“I think COVID brought a lot of fear in everybody and insecurity and it’s like it’s the end of the world,” he says with a rueful smile.

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“It is a sense of fear among everyone that put everyone off guard. It bought a lot of insecurity so what happened was in Uganda, with the authorities here, had a complete lockdown which means nothing moving everybody had to stay home. If you wanted to go to supermarkets you had to walk. All the cars and trucks and everything stopped and likewise the airport closed and cargo flights were not allowed in and then I think the government realised that at least cargo planes should come in. For us, what happened was Europe had a similar scenario a soft lockup where people could still move. What’s fortunate for us is the kind of flowers we sell is sold in supermarkets and supermarkets in Europe they are always open.”

So, it was vital that Rosebud kept shipping roses through the storm in a dangerous new world where one COVID-19 case could have shut the business down.

“Millions of jobs ended, most employers would end up paying two- or-three month’s salary, as was the law, because they cannot sustain themselves. All the cars, all the activity that bring taxes to the government stopped.”

Sudhir moved fast and offered 750 workers a bonus, three square meals a day, and a bed for the night on condition they didn’t leave the farm for the weeks of lockdown in Uganda.

“Everybody was scared themselves; the insecurity of jobs, of survival and a lot of people, live on week to week or month to month so I think it was equally important for workers to salvage a place which gives them a living, at the same time, as proprietors, we wanted this thing to work. The farm, as you know: the plants are living things that have to be tended they have to be fed eight to six times a day. But also, the plants themselves if you don’t tend it a lot of foliage grows – what you call the parasite leaves – so we had to trim and all that. So, we needed our people to be with us and I think it was a great moment when everyone came together and made sure it worked.”

It meant there was a small disruption of exports – flights were suspended for two weeks -to the world’s biggest flower market in the Netherlands. Three cargo planes fly 120 tonnes of roses every week to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, near Amsterdam, where traders sell 20 million flowers a day. It remains a thriving business despite rough economic times.

Most of Uganda’s roses end up in supermarkets in Britain France and Germany. The country grows the small and durable so-called sweetheart rose. It’s in big demand in Europe – a continent where flowers say everything from happy birthday and happy house warming to: ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Please marry me.’ Sixty-five per cent of the world’s flowers go through the auction near Amsterdam.

“Europe is a very tough game to enter the market and apart from Europe, the people we deal with are Dutch. Dutch are very tough and hard people and if you don’t understand you are dumped the next day. So, whatever you do you must make sure you create a benefit to them and also the consumers. The hardest people in Europe to deal with are Dutch and we have over the years created a name for Uganda as a flower growing country,” says Sudhir.

“The Dutch have perfected the art of settlement. We have sold flowers directly to some people and lost money. The Dutch have a system, you pay a charge, but in 14 days you get your money.”

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Yet the efficiency and toughness of the rigorous Dutch threatened to nip this thriving African flower farm in the bud. The threat to the business was no bigger than a pinhead – the egg of a caterpillar. Four of them were found among 12 million roses and the sharp-eyed Dutch inspectors threatened to cut off trade.

“Europe has very stringent sanitary regulations of any insects coming into the country and any other living being that cannot be detected by the eye, but grows during the journey to Europe,” says Sudhir.

“We have to have five different checks to ensure that physically none of these living beings – including caterpillar eggs – were hidden in the flower petals and the leaves. So every flower we export has to be physically checked five times.”

Long lines of workers peering through large magnifying glasses are at the heart of the organization. In the greenhouses, anti-insect lights and molasses trays try to ward off the butterflies and keep them from laying eggs that could be the greatest threat to the business.

A similar catastrophic bolt from the blue proved the catalyst that catapulted Sudhir on a long journey to the other side of the world that was the foundation of his fortune.

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