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April 06, 2008

UK govt. backs African horticultural exports despite food mile campaign

The UK government is urging supermarkets to step up their sourcing from African farmers and reject concerns over ‘food miles’.

The government has launched a £2 million fund to back new partnerships between retailers like Tesco and Sainsburys and African farmers. The supermarkets will be asked to match grants they get from the fund, which will be spent on developing new ways of buying produce from farmers in developing countries.

The move comes as Kenya’s High Commission in London admitted that its own ‘Grown Under the Sun’ campaign, launched in July last year, has failed to take off due to an acute shortage of funding.

Initiatives to boost sourcing from Africa could be important in expanding economic and job opportunities for Kenyan entrepreneurs. After Uganda, which accounts for 12.2 per cent of Kenya’s Sh260 billion worth of goods exporters, the United Kingdom is the second most important trading partner with a tenth of goods exported by the country.

Kenya’s trade relations with the UK accounts for hundreds of thousands of jobs in the horticulture sector. Heated debate in the last year about the environmental impact of air-freighting produce to stores threatens Kenya’s most important market, the UK.

British consumers are increasingly aware of environmental issues and air-freight is said to cause a disproportionately high level of carbon dioxide emissions when compared with sea-freight. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) wants supermarkets to overlook environmental concerns when sourcing from

developing countries. “Buying from developing countries makes clear business sense – not only are you sourcing quality products that compete on price but you are also meeting the increasing consumer thirst to buy ethically,” said Gareth Thomas, international development minister, speaking at the ‘Procurement for Development Forum’ held for the first time in London last month.

UK customers spend over £1 million a day on fruit and vegetables from Africa, according to the government. DFID also recently announced a £1.2 million grant over two years to back the development of Fairtrade labelling.

“African farmers are facing strong competition from Central America and the Far-East. The Challenge Fund is designed to help African farmers innovate, add value and compete in our globalised world,” said Thomas.

A Tesco spokesman told Business Daily it plans to “discuss opportunities” for using the new fund. But the retailer, the UK’s biggest, has no plans to remove air-freight labels from its stores.

Both Tesco and upmarket chain Marks & Spencer last year added aeroplane labels to products that have been air-freighted, citing growing consumer concerns about the environment.

The products include some of Kenya’s most valuable exports, such as fresh green beans and cut flowers. Kenyan growers are heavily dependant on air-freight to be able to supply the UK market with these short shelf-life goods.

“We’re probably going to be extending environmental labelling rather than reducing it,” said the Tesco spokesman. “However of the products we do bring in by air we have a bias in favour of sourcing from developing countries.”

Others in the food industry are also still concerned about the impact of importing fresh produce from abroad. The UK’s Soil Association, the leading organic certification body, will require all suppliers using air freight to meet stringent standards on ethical sourcing to counter the negative effects of the air pollution caused when organic fruit and vegetables are flown to the UK.

DFID says its new ‘Food and Retail Challenge Fund’ could support ways to show consumers how African-grown fruits are ‘low-carbon’. Labelling could also be developed to inform consumers how their purchasing can boost African incomes.

“If the products on your shelves contribute to ending poverty in the developing world, then shoppers should know about it. Our vision is that all the food that you sell from Africa has a positive story to tell about the impact it has had on the livelihoods of poor people,” said Thomas.

Business Daily Africa

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