By Caroline Wambui
MERU COUNTY, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For many farmers in Kenya, a bout of prolonged rain and flooding, as the East African nation has experienced since March, can wipe out a whole season of crops. But for herb grower Silas Mutuma, heavy rains often mean a year of solid profits.
Mutuma, the managing director of herb exporter Jambofresh Kenya, has reaped the benefits of a thriving horticultural sector that has become a major driver of Kenya's export revenue.
But in recent weeks, his bounty has become a burden, as measures put in place to control the spread of the novel coronavirus led international buyers to cancel orders and brought Kenya's exports to a standstill for more than a month.
"This year, we have found ourselves in a big mess, stuck with produce that we can neither sell nor consume due to the coronavirus pandemic," said Mutuma, who grows basil, mint, thyme, chives and rosemary.
Travel restrictions around the world have crippled business for Kenya's herb farmers, who export most of their produce. Mutuma, for example, sometimes sends 99% of a harvest overseas.
A few of Kenya's counties are in partial lockdown to curb COVID-19, while the whole country is on a dawn-to-dusk curfew.
Mutuma said all his international orders had been cancelled and he had exported nothing since March, costing him more than 500,000 Kenyan shillings ($4,700) per month.
Of Jambofresh Kenya's more than 300 workers, all but 50 have been laid off, he added.
They join the more than half a million Kenyans who have lost their jobs or been put on unpaid leave due to policies implemented to curb the spread of the virus, according to a report by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.
"It's really a challenge now to even maintain the remaining workers, and soon we will have no choice but to relieve them of their duties as we are operating on a 100% loss," Mutuma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
For most of the past decade, Kenya's horticultural sub-sector has enjoyed consistent growth as millions of farmers send their produce to Europe, China and the United States.
In 2012, the country exported more than 205 million metric tonnes of all horticulture products, which include flowers, nuts, herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables, at a value of at least 89 billion shillings ($833 million).
By 2018, horticulture exports had grown by more than 60% and were bringing in about 154 billion Kenyan shillings, according to figures from the agriculture ministry.
Horticulture is now among the country's top foreign exchange earners, along with remittances and tourism.
This year, horticultural farmers hoped an unusually long and heavy rainy season would bring them another good year of harvests, a flip side to the floods and landslides that have displaced more than 116,000 people in recent weeks.
But even if crops are plentiful, the plunge in international demand due to the pandemic means a miserable outlook.
"Things have been shut down all over Europe and the clients are not asking for any products, especially herbs, as people are at home and cannot go shopping," Mutuma said.
"We are now at zero orders, the crop is lost, we can't salvage it."
Dionysious Wahome, produce manager at AdaFresh, which sells flowers, fruit and vegetables to restaurants and supermarkets in Europe, said the company had drastically cut its orders because so many of its customers were closed during lockdowns.
"We are basically trying to sustain our growers with the few orders we get from some restaurants," Wahome explained.
Kenya's flower farmers - who produce the bulk of horticulture exports - have fared slightly better, said Wesley Siele, chief executive officer of the Agricultural Employers' Association.
Those who sell directly to supermarkets and other international customers are still filling small orders from abroad, he said.
But for others whose export business has stalled, their only option is to harvest and then destroy their crops, eating into profits, he added.
In many cases, the difference comes down to whether farmers have contracts to supply clients, said Okisegere Ojepat, CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya.
Those hit hardest rely on brokers buying up their produce to sell on, said Ojepat, whose organisation represents more than 200 growers and exporters.
"Some avocado and macadamia farmers, for example, tend to grow their produce without a contract (and) that is making them suffer most during this pandemic as the brokers are not coming," he said.
LESSON FOR GROWERS
As countries start to ease themselves out of quarantine, some of Kenya's farmers have reported a trickle of international orders coming back in.
While passenger flights remain suspended, the country has allowed a few cargo planes in and out, although at a reduced capacity.
To keep its operations running, Kenya Airways converted four of its empty passenger jets and has shipped out more than 40,000 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables since mid-April, according to Ojepat.
"We (have) started moving our cargo, a thing that had not happened since we got into this coronavirus mess," he said.
"Europe is running short of supply and they are already demanding produce from us. Even what is in their farms cannot be picked because of social distancing measures, so the demand for our produce is on the rise," he added.
Ojepat believes the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak offers an opportunity for horticultural farmers to think about doing things differently.
"The pandemic crisis should act as a lesson for most Kenyan growers, who should relook at their business models and restructure them to handle (such) challenges ... especially at a time of crisis," he said.
($1 = 106.7000 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Caroline Wambui; editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)