When she moved to Kisumu close to 30 years ago, Zerin Aoko had not envisioned dedicating her entire life to selling tree seedlings.
She was in her early 20s, and had got a job in a local factory in Kisumu, but was introduced to the tree business by a friend after the company she worked for relocated, leaving her jobless.
“A friend of mine who was already in this business asked if I would like to try it out. Having no alternative, I took the challenge,” the now 55-year-old Aoko recalls.
She started with few plants, as she had no much knowledge on the trade. She expanded to flowers and ornamental trees, and she is now an authority in the field.
Initially, her mission was to get something to help put food on the table, but her vision expanded after she realized that her efforts contributed to making nature better through planting trees, beautifying peoples homes, and fighting plastic pollution through recycling plastic bags.
Now nicknamed ‘Mama Flower’ by her clients, and with over 25 years experience, Aoko may be the longest serving flower dealer in Kisumu, and may be beyond.
She had initially been stationed at Oile Park, but in 2014, she relocated to Okore Road, in Milimani.
“Most of my customers are people from around,” she says, adding that majority are women who adore and purchase her flowers and ornamental plants for home decoration.
Her work space is a spectacular sight of plants grouped together in small and large plastic bags filled with soil.
Some, according to species, others according to size, and others just heaped together to form an amazingly beautiful bush of differently colored plants and flowers.
It is impossible to miss.
A group of well decorated clay ports also lay pilled neatly at the front on one side and another group of much smaller ports on the furthest side.
The entire space measures about 15 by 18 meters.
Though partially creased and weary in appearance, the dark, five foot tall woman, wore a surprisingly contented smiley face as she moved gracefully among her plants.
The single mother of two says she started mainly by selling tree seedlings in the late 1990’s. Later, she shifted to the flower business to escape the crowded tree seedling industry.
As majority of the flowers are propagated, she only needs to keep a surviving plant in her possession to act as the ‘mother plant’ from which she then gets the seedlings.
“For some of these plants, you only need to carefully cut a stem and partially insert it into a container with good loamy soil and water frequently,” she explains while pointing at one she calls the ‘golden Duranta’ which is a common hedging plant with bright yellow leaves.
Most of her merchandise originates from within Kisumu and sometimes from neighboring counties. She also admits to acquiring some through exchange with some of her clients.
“Some of my loyal customers sometimes bring me species which I do not have in exchange for some in my collection,” she says.
Buying from other dealers is sometimes an option when she runs out of a particular species or need to add a new one to her collection.
She sells over 50 species of flowers and ornamental plants, from the most common to the least known.
“The ‘Golden Duranta’, the ‘Elephant Ears’ and the ‘Ten Commandments’ among others, are the commonly bought species of plants here,” she explains.
The pricing varies from Sh5 to Sh500 depending on the size and nature of the plant.
The ornamental plants fetch more and are usually preferred by majority of clients.
The clay flower pots are also another commodity which substitutes her earnings.
With a single one costing Sh850, they are common, partly with the same clientele and partly with random passersby who prefer them to the plastic and concrete ones that currently flood the market.
This business has seen her two daughters through school as she revealed. The youngest of whom she says has shown immaculate interest and passion in the trade as well.
Giving back despite challenges
During her interview with Lake Region Bulletin at her work place, the woman said that security is her greatest challenge, adding that the ornamental plants are normally the target by thieves who usually strike at night.
Though she has never been hit, Aoko says she is aware of numerous incidences involving some of her colleagues in nearby areas who deal in the same trade.
She depends on the goodwill of the security personnel guarding nearby properties to keep an eye on her behalf once in a while.
And just like any other business, the revenue stream fluctuates.
“Some days you get little to nothing at all while on other days you may get something,” she says.
Water for watering her flowers used to be a problem but Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company (KIWASCO) installed piped water for her.
This has greatly helped with the plants which she says need frequent watering, especially during extremely sunny days which she explains is more rampant nowadays in comparison to when she first started out.
She blames climate change for this.
She adds that working with plants need a lot of patience and passion since they take time to grow. The passion, she says, is what motivates her.
“Missing a particular species in the collection is usually not just a challenge but a frustrating and disappointing situation, especially when it is the one plant a customer needed,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Aoko humbly revealed that she takes pride in taking others under her wing.
The mentorship, she explains, has deterred the young men from engaging in drugs and other criminal behavior synonymous with idleness.
The plant lover also says she supports street children in a mutually beneficial arrangement that involves her giving them some money for food in exchange for the soil and plastic bags which they supply her with.
The soil, which is a crucial element in this trade, is collected from drainages around the city while the plastic bags and containers are collected both within and outside the city.
This, she adds, helps with recycling plastic waste and keeping the environment clean.
“I feel happy when I see them toiling to make ends meet instead of constantly begging on the streets,” Aoko expressed with a smile.