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Kenya Losing Millions as Volcano Grounds Flights

  • Michael Onyiego

Workers push cart loaded with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm in Naivasha, 19 Apr 2010

Workers push cart loaded with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm in Naivasha, 19 Apr 2010

As an erupting volcano in southeastern Iceland sprays a cloud of ash over much of northern Europe, its economic impact is being felt as far south as Kenya.

As airplanes sit idle in Nairobi, Kenya's farmers are scrambling to save the thousands of tons of produce in danger of perishing if they do not reach their destination shortly.

The volcanic ash cloud that has stranded millions of passengers in airports across the world, is also stranding the Kenyan produce bound for European markets.

Europe is the most important destination for Kenyan exports. Around 1,000 tons of Kenyan produce and flowers are sent to Europe daily, and the continent accounts for nearly 82 percent of the industries' total exports, but without airplanes to ship the cargo, the perishable goods simply cannot reach the markets.

From last Thursday to Sunday, not one plane left Kenya for Europe, leaving cold storage facilities at Nairobi's international airport full and forcing many local farmers to begin throwing away their crops. The farmers are losing an estimated $3 million per day, and many have had to lay off employees in anticipation of further losses.

Despite the flight ban, which remains over much of northern Europe, Kenyan exporters are now finding ways to get their products to the market. According to the Chief Executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, Stephen Mbithi, a single cargo plane carrying 100 tons of Kenyan produce flew from Nairobi to southern Spain, which has not been affected by the ash.

The airplane only carried about 10 percent of Kenya's daily crop, but more shipments are expected, and growers hope to export at regular levels by the end of the week. But even if Kenya returns to normal export levels, shipping overland from southern Spain will mean a 60 percent drop in profits.

And according to Mbithi, the reopening of export to Europe could lead to a drop in price due to the backlog.

"Even if all the flights come back, say tomorrow, and then we fly everything in that means we will suddenly oversupply, because we will be trying to supply three, four days of harvest," he said. "We think that it is possible that you are looking at about a 15 percent, 20 percent drop in price if that was to happen. We basically are telling everybody: we might as well write off the fact that we have lost $12 million in the last four days," said Mbithi.

Kenya's new route into Europe promises to alleviate some of the losses experienced by the country, but it is uncertain how long it will last.

There is no way of knowing if or when the volcano will stop erupting, and southern Spain could find itself under the same restrictions as its northern neighbors.

The eruption of Iceland's volcano has affected more than just produce. Kenya's main airline, Kenya Airways, has reported losses of almost $4 million since Thursday, and the eruption has reportedly cost the airline industry worldwide nearly $200 million daily.

European flight operators are pressing air safety authorities to ease the ban. Many airlines have conducted test flights to demonstrate the ability of their aircraft to function, despite the cloud of ash. But the airspace over many of Europe's transportation hubs, including France, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, remains closed.

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