NAZRET, Ethiopia, May 7 (Reuters) Inside Jobera Flowers' vast greenhouses, there are rows of rose buds ready for harvest and destined to brighten rooms in faraway Europe.
The Jobera farm, about 90 km south of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, is one of the most successful in a thriving industry that is helping to diversify the country's coffee-dependent economy.
The Horn of Africa country, which prides itself on being the birthplace of coffee, earns about 20 million dollars annually from flowers, according to the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association (EHPEA).
It is still a paltry amount compared to the 334 million dollars it earned last crop year from sales of coffee, its main export commodity. But given the rate of growth in the flower industry, it could soon catch up good news for an economy that has been ruled by fluctuating coffee prices for many years.
''Ethiopia will rank as the second or third (biggest exporter) in the world in the next two to three years, I think this will be the major supply for the whole world,'' said Mike Asres, owner of Jobera Flowers.
Despite having no experience in growing blossoms for sale, Asres decided to risk savings worth 3.1 million dollars and took out a 2.4 million dollars loan when a close friend told him Ethiopia's climate was ideal for the lucrative industry.
In 2000, after 25 years of a relatively comfortable life in the United States, he set up one of the first commercial flower farms in Ethiopia.
ROSY INCENTIVES Like Asres, many local farmers are pouring their savings into flowers and foreign investors from the Netherlands, Germany, India and Israel are also buying up land for farms.
The government has sought to entice investors with incentives, including an improved investment code, five-year tax holiday, duty-free import of machinery, and by leasing land out at just per hectare per year.
The plan appears to be working 70 new farms have sprung up in the last eight years, including Tsegaye Abebe's on the outskirts of the capital.
Just a year ago, Tsegaye took over the four-hectare piece of fallow land and planted beds of roses. Now, he has a thriving farm and he wants to quadruple its size in the next couple of years.
There is so much demand for his products that he rarely gets time off to spend with his two young daughters.
''When I come home late they are asleep, when I leave early they are asleep,'' he said.
Growing a flower business is not always a bed of roses as industry pioneer Asres found out.
There were no examples to learn from in Ethiopia, so he had to make expensive weekly educational trips to neighbouring Kenya, which ships out more than 88 million tonnes of cut flowers worth about 264 million dollars every year, and is the biggest cut flower supplier to the lucrative European market.
''When we started this farm, this was one of the first three rose farms in Ethiopia, it was very difficult for us because we didn't have any point of reference to learn from,'' Asres said as workers carted away hundreds of blooms in plastic pails.
Jobera, which is 6,500 metres above sea level, exported 36 million roses in 2005 and employs 1,200 workers. Most of them were unemployed before the farm opened.
According to EHPEA, Ethiopia ships out 70 tonnes of flowers every day but the volume is growing and exporters now have to charter daily flights to Europe in addition to using regular scheduled flights.
Ethiopia is keen to advertise that flights from its capital reach European auctioneers two hours earlier than those from Kenya, which means blossoms stay fresher longer.
''We are literally growing on a monthly basis,'' said Samson Sebehatu of the EHPEA. ''We are negotiating with other operators on cargo capacity to take out more and more (flowers).'' REUTERS SY ND0858