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May 09, 2010

Volcanic flight ban hits Kenya farm workers

Thousands of farm workers in Kenya have been temporarily laid off because of the volcanic ash over Europe that has grounded flights. They have been sent home as harvesting of flowers and vegetables has had to stop.

Agriculture is the East Africa nation's largest export sector, employing hundreds of thousands of people.

The head of Kenya Flower Council has told the BBC 3,000 tonnes of flowers have been already been discarded.

Our reporter in the capital, Nairobi, says refrigerated stores at the city's airport and on farms are now completely full. Unless flights quickly resume, much more produce will have to be thrown away, he says.

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 (£1.9m) 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," Mr Mbithi said.

Horticulture recently became Kenya's greatest export earner and accounts for roughly 20% of the economy.

Exporting roses and getting beans, sugar snap peas and other vegetables onto the shelves of European supermarkets is an impressive operation, our correspondent says.

Jane Ngige, head of the Kenya Flower Council, said that growers were trying to find local markets. "But 3,000 tonnes of flowers is a lot of flowers," she said. "The only flowers that are able to leave the country now are flowers going, say, to the Far East, as in Japan. And we are now exploring ways of getting directly to the American market via South Africa," Ms Ngige explained.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano system began erupting last Wednesday for the second time in a month, hurling a plume of ash 11km (seven miles) into the atmosphere.

Airspace currently remains closed, or partially closed, in more than 20 European countries and weather experts say wind patterns mean the cloud is not likely to move far until later in the week.

BBC

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