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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 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.