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Volcano Stems Kenya’s Flower, Vegetable Market

BY Larisa Epatko  April 20, 2010 at 12:30 PM EDT

Kenyan flower farm photo by World Bank via Flickr

The erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland is continuing to limit flights in and out of Europe, putting Kenya, one of its major suppliers of fresh-cut flowers and vegetables, in a holding pattern as well.

Kenya supplies about 1,000 metric tons of flowers and fresh produce per day to European Union countries, including providing 33 percent of the total amount of roses sold in the EU, said Stephen Mbithi, chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, which monitors trends throughout Kenya.

So far, as flights remain cancelled, four days’ worth of flowers and vegetables is sitting in cold storage and starting to spoil, amounting to about US$12 million in losses, he said.

“What we are working on now is to get produce to the south of Spain and truck it all the way to Germany and the Netherlands and the UK through the [English] Channel,” he said.

Some flower suppliers are trying to find other alternative routes and local markets.

“The only flowers that are able to leave the country now are flowers going, say, to the Far East, as in Japan,” Jane Ngige, head of the Kenya Flower Council, told the BBC.

“And we are now exploring ways of getting directly to the American market via South Africa.”

Other impacts are felt in Kenya, including about 5,000 harvesters now unable to work since their produce cannot go anywhere, said Mbithi. And small-scale farmers, who cannot sell their products, will be short on funds for seed and fertilizer for their next production cycle, he said.

But outside of the specialized fresh-cut flower and produce market, other agricultural commodities traded between Europe and Africa should be largely unaffected by the volcano, said Shangnan Shui, an economist in the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Trade and Markets Division.

“The airline interruption in Europe is a known short-term event, (so) both suppliers and consumers will make good arrangements to respond to the disruption,” he said.

Only high-value products such as cut flowers and certain types of vegetables are transported by air, usually by European wholesalers or contracted suppliers by European supermarkets, said Shui.

Other vegetables and fruit are shipped by sea, Mbithi said, but about 16 varieties of vegetables, such as green beans, snow peas, baby carrots and broccoli, are more perishable and therefore transported by air.

In a good year, he continued, Kenya makes about US$1 billion annually in the sale of flowers and produce, and is hoping to absorb the $12 million loss in the course of the year.

If the interruption in flights ends Tuesday or Wednesday, it would take four or five days to clear the backlog of produce in storage, and then the workers will be able to start harvesting again early next week, said Mbithi.

“Of course, if it carries on for a week, I think the damage will certainly be felt at the end of the year,” he said.