After the war, a dedication to roses
Terrence Bramble went from career soldier to florist, and his business is winning a growing share of the fresh flower market in the UAE.
As a barman tops Mahiki's signature Treasure Chest drink with a smattering of crimson rose petals, most revellers in the trendy Dubai nightspot would have little idea of the arduous journey that garnish has undergone to reach the desert.
Nor would they realise that the petals scattered on the floor and trodden underfoot as they dance the night away have travelled 14,000km across continents with teams at either end to protect their precarious fate.
But those delicate blooms represent a bold attempt from one of the world's most troubled and conflict-stricken countries to break into the Middle Eastern market.
Colombia is the second largest flower exporter in the world after Holland but until recently, the UAE was largely off-limits.
The logistics and high costs associated with flying goods so sensitive to climate and journey times meant florists and wholesalers opted instead for blooms from the Netherlands, which commands 65 per cent of the global market, or Africa.
Five years ago, Colombian flowers accounted for just one per cent of the market in the UAE. Now that figure hovers between five and 10 per cent and is on the rise, thanks in large part to the efforts of one man.
Terrence Bramble's company Andean Arabian Flowers flies thousands of roses, chrysanthemums and orchids from Colombia into Dubai every week. They find their way into the foyers of The Ivy and Hakkasan restaurants and adorn the lobbies of Jumeirah Emirates Towers and the Pullman Dubai Deira City Centre hotel. And if it takes a military operation to get them there intact and as fresh as the day they were harvested, then Bramble is the man for the job.
Trained at Sandhurst military academy, the 56-year-old reached the rank of squadron deputy commander in the British army, mounting counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland and leading peacekeeping missions in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Even after he left the military in 1985, he continued to work in government-led security programmes in Iraq and South America during some of the most turbulent chapters in their histories.
So while he is still heavily involved in negotiations with Latin America, importing flowers might seem rather tame to a man who, by his own admission, has found himself in life-threatening situations more times than he cares to remember.
Instead, he says, the change has been a welcome one: "I had run out of my nine lives. I was flying in and out of Iraq and was wondering what I was going to do to get out of security.
"When I found out only one per cent of flowers were coming from Colombia, I did some market research and the rest is history."
If any other sign were needed that it was time to get out, it was his last close shave as he was wrapping up operations in Baghdad. En route to the Bride Show in Dubai for research, his convoy was hit by a car bomb.
"Everyone was OK, but all I could think about was getting to the airport to get to the bridal show," he says.
With US$120,000 (Dh441,000) start-up costs, Bramble launched his company in November 2006 with the help of contacts he had already forged with floral traders in the South American country.
At a time when flower shipments to the United States were a favoured means of smuggling cocaine, he had spent 10 years in Bogota devising schemes to prevent Colombia's notorious drug cartels from using that channel for trafficking.
"It was very difficult to move around the terrain," he says. "There would be roadside guerrillas who would flag down trucks, take five boxes off and put a kilo of cocaine in each one. The driver would know what was in them but would be scared for his life.
"We worked with the farms, advising them on how to make sure the cartels were not infiltrating."
With many of the cartels wiped out in the 1990s, tourists and traders have tentatively started exploring opportunities in Colombia, but progress has been slow.
And while the country's floral exports are worth $1.25 billion a year, nearly 80 per cent of flowers end up in the US.
Bramble is determined to secure a slice of a flourishing trade - which ranks highly after coffee, coal and coca - and is backed by Colombian producers, who are keen to break into the Middle East.
His warehouse near Dubai International Airport processes two shipments a week containing 2,000kg of flowers, including 10,000 roses, flown in on Lufthansa passenger flights via Frankfurt.
Harvested from 45 Colombian farms and making up 90 per cent of his produce - the rest comes from Holland - they are then sold as bouquets in Al Maya supermarkets in Dubai, arranged in hotels or sold wholesale.
Earlier this year I retraced their journey back to the savannah in Colombia where two-thirds of exported flowers are grown. Just 45km outside Bogota, the traffic-choked, ugly concrete sprawl gives way to lush, verdant forests, pine-covered mountains and winding lanes dotted with roadside shacks selling arepas, or deep-fried pastries filled with cheese.
Here, 2,600m high in the Andes mountains where the constant 18°C temperature and abundant rainfall provide the perfect climate to breed flowers, more than 330 farms run round-the-clock operations to produce one of the nation's most successful exports. Mega Flowers in Tabio, a village where half the land is dedicated to floriculture, sends one in four of the 3,000 flowers it produces every week to Europe and the Middle East, including 450 Freedom red roses to Bramble, but getting them there is a delicate process.
A total of 430 workers are involved in a labour-intensive scheme to produce 50 varieties of roses from its 34 hectares.
Rose bushes start producing flowers about four months after they are first planted in greenhouses and then continue to blossom every 70 to 90 days for up to 15 years.
Nets are used to protect them from the sun's harshest rays and they are treated for disease-spreading spider mites and whitefly, all of which can ruin them in transit.
Once they are harvested, farmhands have to work quickly to stop them dying before they make their 14,000km trip to Dubai.
The flowers are plunged into sugar water and then stored in a cold room at 2°C for up to eight hours to freeze their development.
Once their stems are stripped of thorns and leaves, they are carefully measured and trimmed to size before being assembled into bouquets, hydrated again and given another shock of cold until they are ready to be transported.
Flowers harvested on a Tuesday will be packed in cardboard boxes on to a flight the following evening and arrive in Dubai on Saturday morning, where they are unloaded by ground handling teams within 15 minutes.
Bramble, who says the extra freight costs are worth it because of the high quality of the flowers, says: "We try to get our flowers from the airplane to the warehouse in 40 minutes.
"It is very tricky at this time of year. The heat doesn't help; we have recorded temperatures of 70°C on the tarmac so we have to move quickly.
"The important thing is how it is cut, chilled and treated in post-production as it slows the process down."
The flowers are packed and dispatched to hotels and shops the same day. While the recession affected sales, business has been picking up of late and Andean Arabian Flowers has just opened its first florists in Al Maya store in Dubai Marina.
While it may seem months away, work will soon begin in Colombia to develop red roses for Valentine's Day, when exports increase ten-fold and the country notches up 12 per cent of its annual sales.
Bramble may be a long way from winning the war of the roses but, he says, he has never looked back with regret: "The contrast with my life before is amazing."
Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer for The National. She is a regular contributor to The Review.
Published: September 1, 2012 04:00 AM