It was a great relief for Kenya’s horticultural sector, as a Kenya Airways passenger Dreamliner aircraft, Boeing 787, flew to London, carrying more than 40,000 kilogrammes of fresh produce on April 16, 2020.

For weeks, thanks to the effects of the coronavirus, the sector has been faced with transportation challenges due to movement restrictions and curfews.

Passenger flights in and out of the country were grounded on March 25th 2020, resulting in devastating effects on exports to the European Union and the Middle East destination.

“As the world moved into public closure, and passenger flights stopped, our volume of available air cargo plummeted. We used to have six airlines, for example Cargolux, carrying 120 tonnes of produce on every flight, Lufthansa and Air France, running daily cargo-only flights. Together, they accounted for about 60 per cent of our air cargo, while cargo carried in the bellies of passenger flights accounted for another 40 per cent,” says Mr Okisegere Ojepat, the CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium Kenya (FPCK).

“That 40 per cent had stopped, and so too had the majority of cargo flights. Where we had cargo flights coming in and out that could carry 1,400 tonnes a week, now we were only able to transport just 360 tonnes,” he adds.

This has been a nightmare for the sector that has also had to put up with increasing freight costs and a depressed international market.

However, Thursday’s flight, where KQ transformed a wide-body passenger plane to ferry cargo, brought some relief as it set the stage for the resumption of normalcy, while improving demand for produce in Europe.

“Europe is seeking not only our normal supplies, but also different and wider goods with less stringent regulations for the interim,” Mr Ojepat says.

In the Dreamliner, seats were removed and replaced with the produce arranged in two rows.

“There is demand for cargo aircraft across the world and we will continue to play our part by keeping essential supplies moving during this time. Today’s flight is one-step toward that recovery journey,” a statement by Kenya Airways said.

Last week, during a webinar by Logistics Update Africa on ‘Delivering cargo in the times of continental contagion: From essential supplies to critical medicines,’ Mr Hosea Machuki, CEO, Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK) noted: “We have demand to ship fruits and vegetables out of Nairobi to Europe but the only issue is air freight capacity. Our members are in talks with the government to add more capacity. We are looking at an option in Kenya for passenger aircraft to fly cargo like Ethiopia is doing. We are in talks with Kenya Airways for capacity addition.”

Mr Ojepat says: “There has been a lot of discussion on how to solve the freight challenges. We (the sector) have been in negotiation with KQ and the government to see how they can help us increase cargo space to move the volumes of produce. The Thursday cargo lift was as a result of this.”

 “We are, however, trying to push for a bigger aircraft to carry more tonnage. The one we got has a capacity of 40 tonnes; we need more space. Ethiopia can carry up to 100 tonnes of produce. KQ has three planes that can carry this quantity. If we can get these planes, it can give our sector the opportunity to export more produce, add morale to our growers and employees can also keep their jobs,” he adds.

There are also plans for other airlines to take up more cargo. “We expect Emirates to start flights to Europe and the Middle East on April 18th, if all goes well,” Mr Ojepat says. This is all good, because we will have the much-needed increased cargo space. However, cargo charges will be higher.

“We are hoping that due to its stake in KQ, the government can give us some concessions for example scrapping or reducing fuel charge, to increase our competitiveness, “he says.

The latest flight is of KQ 2764- a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which took off from Johannesburg on Sunday 12 April 2020, carrying medical supplies and other items.

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