Exports buried in volcanic ash: when Iceland's eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, billowing ash high into the atmosphere, it caused an almost blanket cancellation of flights into and out of Europe for a week. The unprecedented disruption took its toll not only on African business travellers but also exports of fresh produce such as vegetables, flowers and fish. Richard Seymour reports.

Author:Seymour, Richard
Position:KENYA
 
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The disruption caused to air transport in Europe by the Iclandic volcano exceeded even that caused by the 9/11 attacks. Ferries, trains and buses were crammed full with passengers. Rental cars, when they could be found, cost thousands of euros. And even Navy ships were deployed to repatriate those stuck abroad. The European aviation industry wrung its hands, sending its chief executives up into the ash in passenger jets to prove how unnecessary they thought the ban was. After six days, the authorities relented, flights resumed, and the cost to business was counted. The hardest hit industry was the aviation sector, which, it is estimated, lost $1.7bn.

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It was not just Europe's airlines that were affected. Africa's carriers, with routes to Europe, were forced to ground planes too. Air Zimbabwe, just one of the African carriers operating flights to and from Europe, lost more than $1m. South Africa Airlines, Tunisair and Kenya Airways were among others which were forced to count their losses. But it was Africa's export market that suffered most. Kenya, for instance, relies heavily on cut flower exports, with only tea exports from the East African country contributing more to GDP. Eighty-two per cent of Kenya's fresh produce goes to Europe, with almost a third sent to the UK, the country most immediately affected by the disruption.

The flower industry in Kenya, which employs around 60,000 people and brings in approximately $1bn a year, was reportedly losing $3m every day European airspace was closed. That is what 1,000t of flowers is worth to Kenyan growers. That flowers are a perishable commodity exacerbated the problem. Refrigerated stores at airports and farms filled up within days and everything else had to be thrown away. A flower withers in days and with it the grower's profit.

Thousands of workers had to be temporarily laid off, with the subsequent loss of income. Chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, Stephen Mbithi, described the situation as disastrous. "We have handled drought, El Nino and the post-election violence," said Mbithi, "but we have not seen anything like this."

The logistics of exporting perishable items to distant foreign markets are formidable and rely on an uninterrupted supply chain. Any disruption to the process brings with it chaos.

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Kenya's flower growers, who at the time had no idea the aviation ban would be lifted in a few days, but were...

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