Economics may be the “dismal science”, but I find this kind of story about the interconnectedness of the world endlessly fascinating. With flights restricted throughout the UK and Northern Europe because of the volcanic eruption, vegetable and flower growers in Kenya find themselves with mountains of produce with no market.
If farmers in Africa’s Great Rift Valley ever doubted that they were intricately tied into the global economy, they know now that they are. Because of a volcanic eruption more than 5,000 miles away, Kenyan horticulture, which as the top foreign exchange earner is a critical piece of the national economy, is losing $3 million a day and shedding jobs.
The pickers are not picking. The washers are not washing. Temporary workers have been told to go home because refrigerated warehouses at the airport are stuffed with ripening fruit, vegetables and flowers, and there is no room for more until planes can take away the produce. Already, millions of roses, lilies and carnations have wilted.
“Volcano, volcano, volcano,” grumbled Ronald Osotsi, whose $90-a-month job scrubbing baby courgettes, which are zucchinis, and French beans is now endangered. “That’s all anyone is talking about.” He sat on a log outside a vegetable processing plant in Nairobi, next to other glum-faced workers eating a cheap lunch of fried bread and beans.
“It’s a terrible nightmare,” said Stephen Mbithi, the chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. He rattled off some figures: Two million pounds of fresh produce is normally shipped out of Kenya every night. Eighty-two percent of that goes to Europe, and more than a third goes solely to Britain, whose airports have been among those shut down by the volcano’s eruption. Five thousand Kenyan field hands have been laid off in the past few days, and others may be jobless soon. The only way to alleviate this would be to restore the air bridge to Europe, which would necessitate the equivalent of 10 Boeing 747s of cargo space — per night.
“There is no diversionary market,” Mr. Mbithi said. “Flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys.”
Thus, the trash heap of greens. At Sunripe, one of the most profitable sides of the business is prepackaging veggies for supermarkets in Europe. Most of the peppers, corn, carrots, broccoli and beans are grown in the Rift Valley, trucked to Nairobi, and then washed, chopped and shrink-wrapped. There are even some packages labeled “stir fry,” which few Kenyans have ever heard about.
The vegetables are marked with the names of some of England’s biggest supermarkets. (They requested not to be mentioned in this article.) But those supermarkets are very particular about their brands and do not allow Sunripe to give away excess produce with their labels on it.
So, on Monday, a man in a Sunripe lab coat and mesh hair net stood at the back of the pickup truck in the company’s loading bay tearing open plastic bags of perfectly edible vegetables, each worth a couple of dollars, and shaking out the contents. Sunripe does give away unpackaged food, and two nuns from an orphanage stood nearby, waiting for some French beans.
With the ash clouds clearing, hopefully the laid-off fieldhands will soon be back to work, and vegetables and flowers will again be winging their way to Europe. For all the complaints about globalization and potential environmental damage caused by international shipping, the ability of Kenyans with their milder climate and opposite set of seasons to supply Europe with vegetables and flowers has doubtless lifted hundreds of thousands if not millions of Kenyans out of poverty — flowing money from upscale European markets to Kenyan packagers and growers, and from them to other Kenyan’s with local businesses who serve them.
For all that I can appreciate the romance of agricultural localism, there’s something inspiring about the complex interplay of relationships that provides British shoppers with fresh zucchini in April and Kenyan farmers with a new chance to lift their families out of poverty.