Dutch import charges cause loss of 2,000 flower jobs in two months

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A new Dutch import charge has hit a big Kenyan national earner - flower exports - and knocked efforts to substitute aid for trade in Africa.

Since 1 April, Dutch authorities have charged €14 (£9.75) for every 10,000 stems delivered to the world's largest flower auctions, near Amsterdam. The charge - for a random disease and pest inspection required by the EU - doubles at weekends.

Kenyan flower growers say the result has been disastrous - the loss of 2,000 jobs in less than two months in an industry that is one of the few success stories for developing countries breaking into rich Western markets.

Western aid has miserably failed Africa, where health, education and poverty indicators remain depressingly low. But industries such as Kenya's flower business offer at least some hope that African countries can trade their way out of penury.

Last year, Kenya exported 52.1 million tons of stems, blooms, blossoms and bouquets - an increase of about 65 per cent over seven years, which has helped horticulture overtake tourism and coffee as the second largest source of foreign currency.

Now the new Dutch charge threatens to slow that growth and even put jobs at risk. On a foggy slope outside Nairobi, Susan Ndungi's Red Hill Flowers has four polythene flower sheds crammed with red and yellow rose plants.

In the high season, it exports up to 100,000 stems every week on the night flight to Amsterdam. But in the past month alone she has paid an extra €303 (£211) in inspection fees - enough to employ an extra eight harvest workers. "We were doing so well until this charge came in," she said. "Now prices are low. If we realise that we can't break even, we will have to reduce our workforce."

The inspection seems ridiculous, added Peter Ochami, the farm manager, because the roses already undergo three checks before reaching the buyer.

"If the inspectors at the airport here find one diseased stem, they reject the whole box. What beats me is why they have to do it again in Europe," he said.

Erastus Mureithi, chairman of the Kenya Flower Council (KFC), which represents 60 per cent of growers, said the charge looks like "double standards". "For years, the developed world has been telling us not to interfere with the free market, that there are too many barriers and tariffs," he said. "But now Europe is interfering with that market. The result is that people lose their jobs and there is a real danger that producers will go out of business." At least 2,000 jobs had been lost across the country already, he added. "It all feels very unfair."

The Kenyans point out that the same EU directive for which the Dutch are charging €14 is being applied in Britain for just a few pence.

The Dutch government defends the charge as a "necessary measure" to ensure infectious diseases do not enter the EU.

For now, the KFC is lobbying for an alternative - and far cheaper - inspection regime to be set up in Nairobi, supervised or audited by EU officials.