Fresh produce exporters turn to sea amid air freight frustrations


Mofarm Fresh Fruits Exporters Director Elijah Njoroge explains the stages avocado go through before they are packaged for export. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Exporters of fresh produce are eyeing to move more of their cargo by sea to stem losses they have been incurring due to inadequate air transport capacity.

They say they are being forced to cancel orders from clients in major markets, and even discard as much as a quarter of their produce, due to inadequate air freight capacity. 

This is largely due to constrained capacity by national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ), which cannot evacuate all their produce, but also the government’s reluctance to allow other airlines to increase their cargo capacity in and out of the country.

Kenya Flower Council Chief Executive Mr Clement Tulezi said the frustrations have forced the industry to consider sea freight as an alternative to exporting their produce.

He estimated that five per cent of local fresh produce meant for export is going through sea freight and projects this could go up to about 20 per cent over the next two years, and further to 50 per cent in eight years.

“We are shifting our focus to sea freight and have been experimenting with all the fresh produce – vegetables, fruits and flowers – and so far we have been successful,” Mr Tulezi said. “The produce can stay at sea for 30 days from here to, for example, Rotterdam and when it gets there, you cannot tell the difference between what was transported by air or by sea.

“There is technology that enables us to keep, for instance, roses without opening up for a month. This is such that when they get to the market, you would not be able to differentiate between what was harvested yesterday and a month ago.”

Kenya’s export of fresh produce by sea was negligible until recently when avocado exports started going up, with the fruit’s producers preferring sea freight.

Mr Tulezi said the industry is bent on pushing more produce to sea freight and said it is working with the Kenya Ports Authority to increase facilities available for fresh produce exporters at the Inland Container Depots at Suswa and Nairobi, and a berth at the Port of Mombasa.

He said producers have in the recent past been lobbying transport and aviation authorities to be help them manoeuvre the challenges they have been experiencing when trying to increase exports through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

The lengthy talks have, however, not yielded much. “We have had many discussions with the Transport ministry officials at different levels and what we have realised is that KQ cannot help us. That is the reality,” he said. While other airlines could help by deploying more cargo capacity, Mr Tulezi said the State has limited this to shield KQ from competition, which could easily be overrun given its fragile state.

“This is hurting exporters and many of them are dropping about 20 to 25 per cent of their orders…the orders are high but there is no capacity to move the produce,” he said.

“We would have expected that the government looks at short-term solutions, perhaps allowing other carriers to bring in capacity as a stop-gap measure as KQ gets back on its feet.” He noted: “Yes, we need to protect KQ but we should look at other sectors that could be hurting before the airline’s turnaround process is complete.”

Besides having bigger cargo capacity, other carriers could also offer the fresh produce industry lower rates.

Mr Tulezi gave an example of Ethiopian Airlines, which charges farmers in Ethiopia Sh180 ($1.6) per kilo while Kenyan exporters pay Sh621 ($5.5) per kilogramme of produce