To anyone in North America, the Icelandic volcano fiasco must seem something of a distant story, unless you are trying to fly to Europe right now, when it will be a living hell.
It is a hell being experienced by hundreds of thousands of people stuck abroad who are unable to get home from their holidays over the Easter break.
As many as 81,000 flights have been cancelled after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland on 14th April which has spread dust and ash across Europe’s airspace.
As the majority of Northern Europe’s airports remain closed for business, what the crisis shows is the true vulnerability of key parts of the European food supply to disruptions in air travel.
It also shows how reliant we are on oil-based air freight. And just unsustainable the whole situation is.
Let’s not forget the vulnerability of the suppliers too. One African country that is more dependent than most is Kenya whose biggest foreign- exchange earner is horticulture. The majority of its flowers and fresh produce are flown to Europe.
The horticulture industry is now in crisis – all because of an Icelandic volcano.
Kenya has built a multi-million pound industry on the back of being able to air-freight it to Europe it over-night. It may be highly successful, but it is also highly vulnerable.
The flight lock-down is having a devastating effect on Kenya: Stephen Mbithi, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, has described the situation as “disastrous”.
“On average, we ship some 1,000 tonnes worth $3m per day,” he told Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. “We have handled drought, El Nino and the post-election violence, but we have not seen anything like this,” Mbithi said.
Eighty-two percent of all produce goes to Europe, and more than a third goes solely to Britain.
As the New York Times reports, with a touch of irony about the packaged Stir Fry: “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.”
However, with no market it is all rotting in the African sun and five thousand Kenyan field hands have been laid off in the past few days, and others may be jobless soon.
There is essentially no market for flowers in Kenya: Netherlands is Kenya’s biggest flower market. Of the country’s total production, 97 percent of the flowers are exported to the European Union, according to the Kenya Flower Council.
Nor for most of the vegetables: “It’s a terrible nightmare,” adds Stephen Mbithi, “There is no diversionary market. Flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys.”
The whole system is completely vulnerable: “It’s just horrendous, a huge blow to the industry,” said Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of the Kenya Flower Council. “Flowers in cold stores at Nairobi airport are already having to be destroyed, and the producers are having to cut and throw away stems which are now maturing, which should be already on their way to Europe.”
“We’re hoping for the best, but we have to plan for the worst case scenario that this goes on for several more days,” said Johnnie McMillan, operations director of Vegpro Group in Nairobi.
He continues: “If we are unable to ship product by Wednesday, our loss of revenue will be more than £600,000 across our business, flowers and vegetables – and that’s just our company. Everyone’s in the same situation. It’ll have a huge impact on the industry.”
There may be some hard lessons. Kenya has built a hugely profitable multi-million dollar a year industry shipping goods to Europe by plane. Where once that made economic sense – longer term it might not be.
It may have taken an Icelandic volcano to show just how flawed the whole philosophy is.
Throw peak oil into the equation and the whole business model may look flawed not just for Kenya producers but European supermarkets and consumers too.
And some may ask, in these days of looming peak oil and climate change, should we be eating fresh beans or stir-fry from Africa?
Especially when so much of Africa goes hungry?
Meanwhile back in Europe, people are beginning to appreciate a sky without planes:
“For the first time in my life, one of my favourite London walks has become the bucolic idyll it always should have been”, Stuart Jeffries writes in the Guardian.
“The grass is still dewy, but I lie on my back and look up. The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies Kew and much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”
Jeffries continues: “If the skies don’t start filling up today as planned, there will be no Kenyan green beans, no mangetout nor sugar-snap peas: we will have to think about growing our own or even contemplating the (excuse my caps, but this is important) Death of the Stir Fry.”
The Icelandic volcano may have just given us a glimpse of the future, and if it has, we had better change our ways.