Kenya horticulture exports stopped by volcano ash cloud

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.

Kenyan jobs are also being lost as the European airport closures continue. Mbithi said on Monday that 5,000 workers had been temporarily laid off. Most of those workers find employment in Naivasha, a lakeside town nestling in Kenya’s vast Rift Valley.

From a distance the shimmering Lake Naivasha is almost outshone by the reflection from the roofs of row after row of greenhouses where flowers are grown surrounded by fields of vegetables almost all grown for export.

Vegetables are picked daily and trucked to warehouses in Nairobi where they are cleaned, trimmed, packed and labelled before being placed in cold storage ready for export.

Usually the horticultural produce is packed into the hold of passenger aircraft that are flying anyway and this has earned Kenya’s industry praise for its green credentials, but no passenger flights mean no exports.

So the storage rooms are now full to bursting with labeled packets, often priced up in British pounds with stickers announcing “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” or “Washed and Ready To Eat.”

For growers such as McMillan, or the tens of thousands of Kenyans employed in the horticulture industry, there is nothing much to be done until the ash cloud clears, something far beyond their control.

Vegpro is exploring the possibilities of flying produce into southern Spain or Italy and then trucking or shipping the vegetables and flowers onto consumers but even that will do little to alleviate the damage done to Kenya’s economy.

As flights to European centers begin to open up, deliveries will resume, but it will take weeks before Kenya's horticultural exports will be in sync with flights to their European markets.