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Kenya horticulture exports stopped by volcano ash cloud

Flowers wilt, fruit and vegetables rot as flights to European markets are canceled.

Kenyan roses are packed for export to European markets. Kenyan horticulture growers are losing millions of dollars per day as flights are canceled and the perishable flowers, fruits and vegetables cannot get to European markets. (Tugela Ridley/GlobalPost)

NAIROBI, Kenya — The dangers of an interconnected world are being felt in equatorial
Kenya where a key part of the economy has ground to a halt because of Iceland's volcanic eruption close to the Arctic Circle.

Last year vegetable and flower exports from Kenya were worth close to $1 billion, making it the biggest foreign exchange earner and contributing roughly one fifth of the entire economy.

But Kenya’s growers are being hit hard by airport closures across Europe since Thursday when European airspace was closed down because of the cloud of volcano ash in the sky.

(Read about how the cancellations are hurting the Amsterdam markets that serve as the flower industry’s international hub.)

Industry insiders estimate that Kenya is losing $3 million to $4 million a day in lost horticulture exports as the closures continue. In cold storage units and warehouses in the key growing area of Naivasha and in the capital Nairobi vegetables are rotting and flowers wilting as the airport closures continue. Already hundreds of tons of vegetables and millions of flowers have been dumped.

“Over the weekend we had to dump somewhere close to 65 tonnes of vegetables and we’re due to dump 400,000 stems of roses,” said Johnnie McMillan, operations director of Vegpro Group, one of Kenya’s leading vegetable and rose exporters.

“It’s really painful to lose this sort of cash flow and every day it goes on the worse it gets. There will be some big gaps on supermarket shelves in Europe if they can’t find alternative sources,” he added.

Dumping produce might sound appallingly wasteful in a country where 1.6 million people survive on emergency food handouts from international aid agencies, but the fine beans, sugar snap peas, runner beans, baby corn and other high-end vegetables are as alien to most Kenyan dinner tables as a bowl of "ugali" maize porridge is to American tastes.

The companies offer the stranded vegetables to their workers first, but most is simply destined to become cattle feed or compost. The same goes for the boxes of neatly trimmed and packaged roses, carnations and other flowers that cannot reach their European markets.

Stephen Mbithi, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters’ Association of Kenya, estimates that Kenya is losing $3 million a day as the usual nightly exports of 1,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables are all but halted.

“We handled drought, El Nino and post-election violence, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” he told the local Daily Nation newspaper.