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Aftershocks reach African workers

Vegetables, roses ruined; 5,000 laid off in Kenya

A flower farm worker in Kenya prepares to throw out roses that that can’t be shipped to Europe because of the lingering ash cloud from Iceland’s volcano. A flower farm worker in Kenya prepares to throw out roses that that can’t be shipped to Europe because of the lingering ash cloud from Iceland’s volcano. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
By Tom Odula
Associated Press / April 20, 2010

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NAIROBI — Daniel Oyier has been eating only once a day since a volcano more than 5,000 miles away caused him to be laid off from his $4-a-day job packing red roses and white lilies for export to Paris and Amsterdam.

Some 5,000 day laborers in Kenya have been without work since the ash cloud from Iceland shut down air traffic across Europe, showing how one event can have drastic consequences in distant lands in today’s global economy.

“If this goes on for a week, it will be really bad for us,’’ said Oyier, 23, who sat against a fence yesterday near Nairobi’s international airport, hoping his employer would call him in. “I don’t know how I will make rent.’’

Kenya has thrown away 10 million flowers — mostly roses — since the volcano eruption. Asparagus, broccoli, and green beans meant for European dinner tables are being fed to Kenyan cattle because storage facilities are filled to capacity.

The horticulture industry is Kenya’s top foreign exchange earner, making $922 million last year. Kenya exports 1,000 tons a day of produce and flowers, including roses, carnations, and lilies, said Philip Mbithi, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya.

Mbithi warned of a cascading series of losses if the travel ban lasts much longer. Small-scale farmers who fund their operations through bank loans will begin defaulting on payments and won’t be able to get funding for next season if exports don’t resume, he said.

Some businesses in Europe will be increasingly affected by a lack of imports, but as long as the disruption is not too lengthy, it shouldn’t be a major issue, according to analysis firm IHS Global Insight.

“The main problem concerns goods that are perishable. Imports of items such as exotic fruit and flowers are being affected and this could lead to a marked spike in prices for these goods,’’ IHS Global Insight said.

Mbithi said at least 10 million flowers have been thrown away because the local market could not absorb them.

Kenyans mostly buy flowers during Valentine’s Day, Mbithi said. Even if farmers attempted to sell them domestically at throw-away prices, many Kenyans would not buy them.

Farmers have been forced to find alternative routes to get their products to market, even at a loss. They flew 1,000 metric tons of flowers to Spain yesterday, where it would be transported by road to Paris and Amsterdam.

“This cuts 60 percent off our profit margin. But it is better than nothing,’’ Mbithi said. “We have clients to keep and consumers to feed.’’

Other flower-growing regions have seen sales fall because of the eruption.

“This has affected us 100 percent,’’ said Willem Verhoogt, managing director of Bergflora, a flower-exporting agency based in Cape Town, South Africa. “We haven’t been exporting for four days.’’

Israeli flower growers suffered two days of disrupted deliveries, but most flowers were preserved in coolers, said Shira Kuperman, a spokeswoman for Agrexco, Israel’s biggest agricultural exporter. Deliveries were set to resume later yesterday, to either Madrid or Athens, where trucks would take them to other points in Europe, she said.