European airspace shutdown batters Kenya's flowers

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The Independent Online

Kenya's flower exports were wilting Monday under the economic burden of European airspace closures, leaving growers facing huge losses as they sought costly re-routing to foreign markets.

Exporters, mainly from the country's Rift Valley town of Naivasha, said they were losing around two million dollars (1.5 million euros) each day and were mulling destroying tonnes of flowers in cold rooms since last week if they fail to export them.

As several northern European airports remain shut since the Iceland volcano erupted and spewed out a giant cloud of ash, the Kenyan farmers - who export roses and other cut flowers mainly to Holland - said they were trying to fly their produce to Spain and then truck them to the Netherlands.

"Once the flowers land in Vitoria in Spain, they will be trucked to Holland and it is very expensive," said Jack Kneppers, who runs Maridadi flower farm in Naivasha, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Nairobi.

Kneppers said their cold storage room was completely full and they were at loss on where to keep Monday's production from his 85-hectare farm, which has an output of between 160,000 to 180,000 rose stems daily for export to Holland.

"We have been promised that there will be another flight later in the day and this is our only hope as of now.

"In case this does not happen we shall have no alternative but to destroy that shipment," said Kneppers.

But even if the farmers manage to reach the markets via the longer and more expensive route, they fear the the flowers will be damaged.

"The flowers will take too long to arrive in Holland and some of the facilities in Spain are not the best, but we have no otherwise," said Johan Reemeus, another producer.

The farmers remain helpless, being unable to instantly stop production as flower shoots continue to grow and blossom.

"At the moment we are not sure what next, but we hope that the flight cancellation will be lifted so that the flowers can reach the market in time," Rremeus explained.

Jane Ngige, the head of the Kenya Flower Council, said growers will have no option but to destroy tonnes of their produce that has piled up in storage.

Workers may also be asked to stay at home, she added, although flower farmers said they would not lay off staff.

"Though no farm has closed down, some workers will have to go on leave as the farmers re-organise themselves," Ngige said.

Kenya's flower sector had already suffered a slump in February, recording a 20 percent drop compared to last year, owing to a drop in demand in Europe following the economic downturn and a prolonged drought in Kenya.

Horticulture is Kenya's third export earner and contributes about 23 percent of GDP.

The labour-intensive horticultural industry employs an estimated three million people.

Kenya's national carrier Kenya Airways - also one of Africa's leading airlines - has been badly affected, with Europe-bound flights grounded and passengers stranded.