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Why Europe's ash is good for South African diners

Exporters cope with closure of European airports by selling fruits, vegetables and flowers locally.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Piles of fine-looking fruit are stacked on the shelves in the local Pick and Pay supermarket, the nicest fruit available here for years, and at prices that are amazingly low.

It is South Africa's best export produce, usually shipped out to European markets where the fruits and vegetables earn foreign currency important to South Africa's economic health. But today the perishable produce is available to South African shoppers because of the closure of European airports for nearly a week.

In a world so interconnected, the Icelandic ash cloud hanging over Europe, invisible to the naked eye, has brought to a standstill a huge proportion of international trade in this country of 50 million people at the tip of Africa.

Ostrich meat, pears, flowers, organic beef, seafood and virtually everything perishable is flown out daily on overnight flights to Europe and then on to markets around the world.

"To not fly into the eurozone for one day is a nightmare for our business, but now it's been one week. It will take us a long time recover from this," said Elton Abraham, the export manager of Grinrod Logistics, one of the biggest exporters in South Africa.

Air freight takes a back seat to passengers during times of crisis, and even now that flights are resuming, Abraham believes that the best case scenario will get Grinrod's export products delivered in Europe by May 1.

"When it's gone, it's gone, we can't recover, and our suppliers can't recover money lost from perished consumables, because they can't produce double what they lost to get that cash back," said Abraham.

Forest Ferns employs 160 workers on their farm near Tsitsikamma, on South Africa's Garden Route on the southwestern coast. They airfreight 20 tons of fresh ferns a week for flower arrangements in Europe. 

"We have just come out of the worst drought in 120 years," said C.J. Muller, Forest Ferns' managing director. "This year it finally broke, and we were doing well, but now, with this volcano, our business is gone." Forest Ferns does 90 percent of its business in Europe.

Like many medium-sized exporting businesses in the country, Forest Ferns does not make enough money to weather a long-term loss, and its fears are echoing throughout the farming sector.