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Kenya's flying vegetables (and flowers)

Booming export trade in horticulture earns more than tourism and telecommunication.

Kenyan flowers grown for export to Europe. A Kenyan works on flowers at Oserian Farm in Naivasha, 55 miles west of Kenya's capital Nairobi. Oserian is one of Kenya's largest flower farms with an export of 11,000 tons of flowers per year. (Antony Njuguna/Reuters)

LONDON — Kenya's exports of 450,000 tons of vegetables, fruit and flowers to Britain and European markets have become the East African country's fastest growing economic sector.

“Kenyan horticulture will bring in $1.3 billion this year. It’s come from nowhere in 20 years and receives absolutely no subsidy of any kind and yet it’s bigger already than banking, tourism and even telecommunication,” said Mark Ashurst, director of the Africa Research Institute, a British think tank which produced a provocative new report on Kenya's horticulture industry.

The report, "Kenya’s Flying Vegetables," charts the experiences of James Gikunju Muuru, a smallholder farmer in central Kenya. One of 33 siblings, his four acres of farmland — devoted to green beans, tomatoes, cabbage, sweet potato and baby corn — support his wife and six children.

Muuru says he earns seven times as much money from growing green beans and other export crops as he would from growing the nation’s staple crop, maize. The money he earns is used to feed his family, as well as for medicine and schooling. His is a common story: Muuru is one of 4.5 million Kenyans who are supported by horticulture, according to the report.

Some detractors claim food security is so pressing it harms Africa to export cash crops, something the Africa Research Institute counters, saying only 10 percent of the total weight of food grown in Kenya is exported and yet it brings in 50 percent of its value. The remaining 90 percent is traded within the region for local consumption.

“Food insecurity isn’t about self-sufficiency; it’s about having enough money to buy food,” said the ARI’s Jonathan Bhalla, who researched the report. “Green beans bring in seven to 10 times more money than maize. Africa has been trying for self-sufficiency for years and it’s never worked.” The report's most controversial point, however, is the argument that buying Kenyan horticulture not only supports the country's developing economy, but it is environmentally more sound than buying locally grown British food. In recent years, the climate change lobby has claimed that the carbon burned up by jetting produce to market uses far too many “food miles." They argue it is much more sound ecologically to buy locally grown produce.

But Ashurst and others argued that it is good for the environment to export Kenyan vegetables by jet. It didn't hurt that they made this controversial assertion to an audience that was dining on sweet potato blinis topped with smoked aubergine caviar, tempura okra and soya bean and chilli cassoulet, all made of produce air-freighted from Kenya.