How the Iceland volcano ash cloud is crippling Kenya's flower industry

Kenya's flower and vegetable industry, which employs tens of thousands of workers and contributes over a fifth of the country’s GDP, is losing $3 million per day because ash from the Iceland volcano has grounded freight flights.

Brynjar Gauti/AP
A plume of ash from the Iceland volcano covers the farm of Pall Eggert Olafsson, in Thorvaldseyri, Iceland, Monday.
Graphic News

Clouds of ash from the Iceland volcano are forcing thousands of workers at farms near the Equator to down tools and robbing Kenya’s flower and vegetable industry of $3 million per day.

The East African country freights 1,000 metric tons of roses, carnations, French beans, snap peas, and other produce daily on overnight flights to Europe. About 1/3 of the cut flowers sold in the European Union are grown in Kenya.

But the Kenyan, British, and Dutch airlines that fly from Nairobi have been grounded since Thursday, following flight bans due to risks to aircraft from volcanic ash spewing from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

Already $12 million worth of flowers and vegetables destined for European supermarkets have had to be destroyed or given away.

Jane Ngige, the chief executive of the Kenya Flower Council, estimated that $8 million worth of flowers had been wasted and would have to be composted.

“It’s horrendous," she says. "There are batches at the airport that were due to fly last Thursday which have had to be destroyed, and there are farmers having to dump product on their farms.”

Growers were investigating flying produce to Spain or northern Africa, and then loading it on trucks to be driven to suppliers, who are fast running out of stock.

“We handled drought, El Niño and post-election violence, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” Stephen Mbithi, head of the Fresh Produce Exporters’ Association of Kenya, told the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper.

23 percent of Kenya's GDP

Kenya’s horticulture industry brought $924 million into the economy last year, making it the largest foreign currency earner. The industry employs tens of thousands of workers and makes up more than a fifth percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“If we see this going another day or two, I’m looking at a revenue loss of about $1 million, and that’s just our company,” says Johnnie McMillan, operations director for Vegpro Group, headquartered in Nairobi. “That impact will be replicated across everyone else. It’s already had a huge impact on the industry, and this is only after a couple of days. If it carries on much longer, it’ll be devastating.

The company, one of hundreds in Kenya, was trying to slow production on farms, and by Monday had already been forced to dump 165 tons of vegetables and eight tons of flowers.

Workers told to stay home

Up to 5,000 farm workers across the industry were told to stay home on Monday as efforts were made to keep flowers and vegetables in the ground rather than harvest them.

“We’re hoping for the best, but we’re preparing for the worst. You can’t stop a rose stem from maturing or a field of green beans from growing,” says Mr. McMillan.

Under normal circumstances, produce is same day harvested, packed, chilled, and trucked to Nairobi’s international airport where it's loaded on passenger flights to Europe. Kenyan produce is typically in shops in Paris or London within 72 hours of being pulled from the fields in Kenya.

Supermarkets’ "just in time" delivery schedules mean that while there is some stock kept in reserve, it is only enough to last for two or three days.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

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