How horticulture sector sailed through pandemic

A worker from Naivasha based Van den Berg flower farm prepares roses for export to the European market ahead of Valentine. The farmers are targeting recovering their European share from Ethiopia which is currently facing low production. [Antony Gitonga] 

Stakeholders in the horticulture industry are optimistic of the slow and steady recovery of the economy even as the global space opens after the Covid-19 disruption.

The Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency CEO Wilfred Marube says the sector has shown tremendous signs of resilience and recovery by keeping the ‘produce of Kenya’ label on the global shelves despite the tough business environment.

“It was a tough call for exporters especially in the flower sector who had to balance between maintaining a market presence, destroying beautiful flowers, sending workers home, keeping plants breathing and keeping their farms free of the virus,” tells The Smart Harvest and Technology.

“This is a sacrifice that has not only secured existing markets but also created new avenues for Kenya’s flowers, fruits, herbs and vegetables,” adds Mr Marube.


Market presence meant selling flowers, not to make money but to be seen in the markets, according to Trish Patel, head of marketing at PJ Dave, whose 80 per cent of orders were cancelled.  

“We continued shipping the little orders coming through to secure future markets for Kenya,” Patel says.  

Even as the sector looks at better times ahead, March 15 is still fresh in the minds of many investors given that it’s the day President Uhuru Kenyatta declared no entry or exit from Nairobi, the distribution centre for fresh produce exports, a move that meant the export artery had been cut temporarily. 

The following week international flights were grounded and for a week no produce was shipped out of the country.  

Nairobi city hosts the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) through which fresh produce flies out daily to the various destinations across the world. 


The ‘lockdown’ came as the industry was grappling with the cancellation of orders at a critical season (March-May) covering Mothers Day, International Womens Day, UK Mothers Day and the Easter holidays.

Then, tonnes of flowers were already harvested ready for Mothers Day, arguably the second most important sales day for flowers after Valentines.

Exporters say this year's Lovers’ Day was the best in five years and they looked forward to a blossoming 2020.

Then Covid-19 hit.  Flights were grounded as many markets shut but there were spot orders requiring to be supplied. 

Avocados especially were in high demand, and Kenya is one of the largest producers of the same globally. 

To accord fresh produce clearance, farms and firms staff required access documents. But despite the many hurdles, the sector limped on bravely. 

“The coordination of the movement of produce from farms to the air in a pandemic challenge remains a proud moment for Kenya,” says Dr  Marube, whose sentiments are echoed by many in the industry. 

“We did it for Kenya,” says Fresh Produce Consortium ( FPC) CEO Okisegere Ojepat adding, “I  haven’t encountered a situation when all of us worked in a seamless coordination to ensure our produce got to the markets that have in turn rewarded the country. 

We were in the shelves when nobody else was resulting in increased orders and attraction of new buyers,” he recalls. 

“I am very proud of the Kenya government and private sector associations for the cooperation between the various agencies to ensure our flowers reached the markets,” says Craig Oulton, general manager, Floriculture, Kisima Farm based in Timau. 

The seamless way players in the sector operated to navigate the stormy waters, is commendable.

The Kenya Flower Council, aware the restrictions would be effected had a week earlier alerted its members to take steps to ensure trucks got cleared at the roadblocks. 

“The KFC did a great job”, said Mr Oulton, reflecting the sentiments of many flower exporters who laud the council for obtaining the necessary documents with speed.

Kenya Flower Council CEO Okisegere Ojepat says: “Everyone worked for  a smooth flow of our horticulture produce.”

The Avocado Society of Kenya CEO Ernest Muthomi says his fairly new organisation got a baptism of fire on the dreaded March 15. 

Calls from his members came in fast and furious. How would they access the capital city?  Muthomi contacted the Ministry of Interior which advised him to inform his members to obtain identification documents.

Sensing the danger ahead, Muthomi quickly sent an email informing members to submit their details required by the police to allow movement.  He contacted a designer and quickly made stickers. 

Muthomi says that night he didn’t sleep. “Avocados needed to move.  We were printing stickers overnight as I drove from one roadblock to another in the dark to negotiate for clearance of vehicles impounded by security. We delivered more stickers through courier.”

But despite the challenges, there are rays of hope all around says Mr Muthomi.

“We have requests from countries like India that are asking for our avocados and we have requested Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, Ministry of Trade and the Kenya Export Promotion to fast-track the deals to enable us tap into the emerging opportunities,” he says. 

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