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Kenyan horticulture: weathering the political storm?

Kenya's flower industry has been hit by recent political unrest (WRENmedia)
Kenya's flower industry has been hit by recent political unrest

After violent clashes following disputed general elections in Kenya, the country now appears relatively calm. International mediation to resolve the political impasse is ongoing, and life in Nairobi - for the most part - seems no different. But in rural areas, particularly the Rift Valley and Western provinces, many people have lost their homes and jobs and thousands remain displaced. For the majority, food prices are now much higher.

During 2007, with poor summer weather in Europe, horticultural and cut flower exports provided well over US$1billion to Kenya's economy (flower exports alone earned US$600m in 2007 - an 80 per cent increase on 2006). But there has been little time to celebrate with substantial losses incurred during the first month of unrest. The run up to Valentine's Day is traditionally one of the busiest and most profitable periods for Kenyan flower exporters who provide a third of the roses on sale in Europe. But, with far fewer workers, flower pickers have had to work longer shifts in an effort to meet demand.

Loss of labour

During times of peak production, Kenya's flower industry employs up to 70,000 people, although a proportion of these are casual workers. Whilst some have returned to work, others have been forced to flee and many have no homes to return to. Naivasha, the heart of Kenya's flower industry, provided employment for many from Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin tribes; those predominantly targeted during the recent violence in the generally peaceful lakeside town. Despite the subsidence in violent attacks, it is estimated that over 3,000 workers, including management staff, have either been moved back to ancestral lands in the West or are living in makeshift camps. In a similar manner, in the North Rift, the Kisiis, Kikuyus, Luhyas Kambas and Mji Kenda were also displaced.

Kenya Flower Council (KFC) chief executive Jane Ngige says the flower sector has, since the beginning of the post-election skirmishes, incurred losses up US$70m. Ngige adds that losses were mainly attributable to non-shipment of the produce when, at the height of the violence, roads were blocked and transport of the flowers was severely affected. With restricted road access to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, flower farms provided with armed escorts resorted to airlifting flowers from the western town of Eldoret to Nairobi, as well as chartering flights to fly flowers direct to Europe.

Fruit and vegetable farmers struggled to reach export markets during the violence
 (Eric Kadenge)
Fruit and vegetable farmers struggled to reach export markets during the violence
Eric Kadenge

Better times ahead?

Fortunately, despite the challenges, European buyers have reported no shortage of Kenyan flowers. And, with Israel suffering the impact of a devastating cold spell on flower production, Ngige is hopeful that current high demand for cut flowers in Europe will provide a much needed boost for the Kenyan flower sector for the remainder of 2008.

Exporters of fresh fruit and vegetables have also suffered losses during the recent conflict. Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK) chief executive officer Dr Stephen Mbithi reports that exporters have so far lost over KES500m (US$7.6m) since the beginning of the post-election violence. Whilst losses have been predominantly due to problems in transporting produce to Nairobi, Mbithi reports that further losses will be incurred in areas where farmers have been unable to plant crops.

Rising food and fuel prices

For other smallscale farmers, the political disruption and ensuing violence has led to a severe disruption in agricultural activities. Particularly in areas of unrest, farmers have been unable to access markets to sell produce or buy much needed inputs for the forthcoming growing season. In Eldoret, dairy farmers have lost millions of shillings with milk remaining uncollected on farms whilst the Kenya Co-operatives Creameries remained closed.

Maize production in Kenya's productive Rift Valley is also likely to be hard hit. Crop preparation is far behind schedule with one farmers' group estimating that much of the land used to grow maize has yet to be planted. FAO estimates that the Rift region usually produces around 70 per cent of Kenya's main staple. Prices for farming inputs such as fuel and fertiliser have also risen sharply due to shortages. High fuel costs have also led to rising food prices, with basic foods now costing at least a third more, if not double, than prices the end of 2007.

A lasting impact?

Kenya's needs to rebuild its reputation as one of the most stable countries in the region (WRENmedia)
Kenya's needs to rebuild its reputation as one of the most stable countries in the region

Until recently, Kenya has been held up as an example of stability and good economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. For now, Kenya may again appear more peaceful but the memory of violence and political instability remains. It is difficult to estimate the full extent of the damage to Kenya's economy but more than 300,000 people have been displaced and many more, particularly the poor, will struggle to grow or buy sufficient food during the coming months.

The country's horticulture and agriculture sector represents a quarter of the country's gross domestic product. But continuing political disruption would severely impact on economic growth, particularly if investors and importers look to other countries, including neighbouring Ethiopia, who are rapidly expanding their horticultural and flower export sectors, and will welcome increased demand due to ongoing instability in Kenya.

With contributions from: Nicholas Waitathu

Date published: March 2008


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