Volcano in far-off Iceland hurting Kenya

Saturday April 17 2010


The horticulture industry has had to tell 5,000 people not to come to work as the cancellation of flights to Europe because of a volcanic eruption in Iceland continued to affect business worldwide.

The head of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, Mr Stephen Mbithi, said 3,000 tonnes of flowers and vegetables worth $9 million (Sh693 million) were stuck at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

“We will stop harvesting tomorrow (Sunday) because we have no storage space left. If we fly Sunday night as we have been informed, there will be temporary oversupply of what we have in stores, meaning the price will be low next week,” he said.

Horticulture is Kenya’s highest foreign exchange earner and made Sh71.9 billion last year compared to tourism which made Sh62.4 billion and tea which toom in Sh69 billion.

The horticulture industry employs more than one million people who are the most likely to suffer if the situation worsens.

Britain’s supermarkets could run short of perishable goods including exotic fruits and Kenyan roses as the ongoing ban on UK air travel brought Britain’s largest perishable air freight handling centre to a standstill.

A three-day shortfall in the supply of asparagus, grapes, green onions, lettuce and pre-packed fruit salads would be exhausted this week, most supermarkets said.

In Holland, home to the biggest flower market in the world, some Dutch flower wholesalers are reporting  lack of various types of species, especially roses from Kenya.

The spread of ash into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions in the North Atlantic island has led to the cancellation of flights in and out of Europe because it is feared the volcanic debris could damage jet engines.

Miraa exporters were not able to reach their lucrative export markets in London and Amsterdam even as harvesting of the plants continued in the Meru region.

“They are going to bring some more today, but if what we have here does not go out by Sunday (today), we will have to throw it all away,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, an export agent.

Mr Ibrahim said most of their exports are to London and Amsterdam, and the farmers and traders hoped things would get better and had not stopped delivering the highly perishable produce.

Kenya Airways chief executive officer Titus Naikuni said in a statement that nine flights to Europe had been cancelled, and the airline’s staff in Amsterdam, London and Paris would try to contact booked passengers to inform them.

“The airline is requesting the affected customers to be patient as the airline operations will not be at 100 per cent once the situation returns to normal due to the backlog and operational constraints,” Mr Naikuni said.

Passengers were advised to avoid going to JKIA and to do so only after they confirm and re-book their flights to avoid creating a jam at the country’s largest airport.

But they will have to wait longer even when flights resume because those who were scheduled to fly out on Thursday would be served first.

“It will take about five days to recover,” said the airline’s head of marketing and corporate affairs Dick Omondi.

He said 2,700 passengers were affected by the cancellation, and the airline is having to pay for the accommodation of some of them in Nairobi and the cities in Europe. London is Kenya Airways’ biggest destination in Europe, and the airline flies there daily.

The huge cancellation of flights in Europe will not have a major impact on Kenya’s tourism industry now in the low season, players in the sector said.

Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers Coast branch chairman Titus Kangangi said the number of international arrivals was very low now anyway.

Mr Kangangi noted that most of the hotels in the region have closed down for renovations, adding those in operation are relying on domestic tourism, conferences, workshops and seminars in addition to a few foreign holidaymakers.

Additional reporting by Mathias Ringa