With increasing competition on the global stage, flowers, fruits, vegetables and meat produced in Africa can have an advantage by strengthening its supply chain ecosystem.

The global demand for flowers and perishables is increasing. With its wealth of flowers, vegetables and fruits produced, Africa is well positioned to tap this demand. However, there are challenges including increased competition, sustainability requirements, the need for traceability, changing consumer behaviour and the impact of e-commerce. Being conscious about sustainability, adopting new technologies, forming partnerships, exploring new markets and diversifying product ranges can help. Logistics could thus become the differentiating factor for African perishables to be competitive in the global market.

Logistics companies can therefore play a crucial role in facilitating the export of these products to destination markets. In addition, many regions in Africa still lack efficient logistics infrastructure (roads, railways, airports, warehouses, etc.). Logistics companies can invest in the development of such infrastructures, as well as in traceability and tracking systems to guarantee the quality and safety of perishable products throughout the supply chain. Such investments enable logistics companies to better meet international standards and improve the competitiveness of African products on the global market.

The global cut flower industry is estimated to be valued at $39 billion in 2024 and is expected to reach $63 billion by 2034 at a 4.9 percent CAGR, according to Future Market Insights. Meanwhile, Markets and Markets estimates the industry to reach $45 billion by 2027, recording a CAGR of 4.6 percent.

The report by Future Market Insights points out that the market is influenced by the growing trend of adoption of cut flowers for weddings, special occasions, celebrations, mega cultural events, and greetings and welcomes.

“Growing demand for fresh flowers for various occasions and events is set to result in continuous expansion in the cut flower market. Expanding consumer preferences, increasing popularity of floral gifts, and rising disposable incomes are factors boosting the cut flower market,” it reads.

In February 2024, as Valentine's Day was approaching, ground handler Swissport announced that the global demand for fresh roses was at its peak and over 9,000 tonnes of them travel through its Flower Corridor - from the fields of the Kenyan highlands to Europe.

“Every week, 400 to 500 tonnes of cargo, 85 percent of which is fresh flowers, pass through Swissport's 10,400 square metre cargo centre in Nairobi, Kenya. This volume increases by 50-55 percent in the run-up to Valentine's Day,” the announcement reads.

The facility, which is certified by IATA's CEIV Fresh, ensures the safe handling of general cargo, perishables, and temperature-sensitive goods, with a particular focus on flowers - a major export from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

There are several factors that are helping the Kenya flower business to flourish including the global demand, suitable climate, and direct trade to European markets. However, African flowers are also facing competition from Latin American and Asian countries that also produce flowers.

For instance, during the same season, the LATAM group, through its air cargo subsidiaries, announced the conclusion of a "historic Valentine's season" with 25,000 tonnes of flowers exported in just 21 days from Colombia and Ecuador due to the festive occasion.

“This marked a 36 percent increase compared to the same season in 2023. The total export corresponds to 575 million flower stems,” it reads.

During Valentine's season, spanning from January 18 to February 7, the company's cargo subsidiaries conducted approximately 418 takeoffs from Quito, Bogotá and Medellín, doubling the regular frequencies from Colombia and Ecuador to deliver the local product to the United States and Europe.

“Traditionally we have been focusing on Europe and even the Middle Eastern carrier flies to Kenya focused on Europe. Now we are focusing on the Middle East. The perishable movements from Nairobi are booming and especially the Middle Eastern markets are growing exponentially.”
Peter Musola, Kenya Airways

Kenya Airways’ head cargo commercial Peter Musola, as he is waiting for the new and fourth 737 freighter to join their fleet in the third week of March, said, “We had a really busy first quarter this year.”

He is in an attempt to diversify KQ’s perishable cargo movement by also including the Middle East and operating freighters to these markets. While the new 737-800 freighter inducted in December flies to Sharjah and Mumbai twice a week, the fourth one is also planned to carry cargo to new destinations in the Middle East as well as India.

“We are augmenting the perishable industry in Nairobi. All these freighters are going to the Middle East. Traditionally we have been focusing on Europe and even the Middle Eastern carriers that fly to Kenya also focus on Europe. Now we are focusing on the Middle East. The perishable movements from Nairobi to the Middle Eastern markets are growing exponentially,” he said.

He also pointed out that the export of meat to the Middle East is increasing and they move 20 to 30 tonnes of meat every day, except for Monday as the slaughterhouses are closed on Sundays.

Shipping flowers and perishables from Africa is a complex challenge, requiring long-term commitment from all players in the supply chain.

Limited space on aircraft due to reduced cargo holds and fewer passenger flights from Africa creates logistical challenges for producers. This often leads to spoilage, costing African producers millions annually.

One major solution lies in building a solid cold chain where it creates a temperature-controlled system from farm to final destination.

Investment in cold storage facilities at farms, refrigerated trucks for transportation, and airport cold rooms are all crucial. Kenya's recent investment in airport cold storage facilities has significantly reduced flower spoilage, demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach.

Technology can also play a vital role. Real-time tracking and improved communication between supply chain partners can help identify and address potential delays before they cause significant product loss.

Meanwhile, the MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company spokesperson noted that one of the primary hurdles confronting flower and perishable shippers in East Africa is that it revolves around the absence of cost-effective transportation options, thereby heavily relying on air cargo.

“The predominant challenges lie in the poor condition of roads and disorganised railways, which do not efficiently accommodate the movement of reefers, proving to be costly,” he said.

He pointed out that MSC has bolstered its reefer container fleet and devised innovative intermodal solutions, establishing connections between the hinterland and major East African ports through enhanced road and rail networks.

“These initiatives are complemented by partnerships with reliable logistics firms, ensuring seamless delivery to ports. Moreover, strategic investments in reefer depots and the continuous training of personnel in container maintenance play pivotal roles in overcoming logistical hurdles. Collaboration with exporters remains paramount, as it ensures the preservation of temperature-controlled cargo freshness throughout the entire logistics chain, from initial pick-up to final delivery—a critical aspect in cold chain logistics management,” he said.

“It should be noted that Africa is facing increased competition from other flowers and perishables producing regions, such as Latin America and Asia”
Eric Dumas, Ostend–Bruges International Airport

Lina Jamwa-Musibi, membership, advocacy and communications manager, Kenya Flower Council (KFC) pointed out the disrupted nature of the flower supply chain. She noted that ocean movements of flowers started a year back, because of its low shipping cost and sustainability factors, but are not happening now due to the Red Sea crisis.

“The experiments to move flower shipment through the ocean have been successful even though it is not suitable for certain varieties of flowers. Jeddah has been an important transhipment hub for these movements and the crisis in the ocean has closed that option for shippers,” she said.

While there are challenges in the movement of flowers and perishables, big changes in the logistics, supply chain and infrastructure are visible. There are also changes in consumer demand as well as markets where African produce ends up.

Talking about the recent changes in consumer behaviour, Ostend–Bruges International Airport's chief executive officer Eric Dumas noted that consumers are increasingly aware of sustainable practices and corporate social responsibility.

“There is a growing trend to favour seasonal produce, grown and harvested close to where it is consumed, with particular attention paid to reducing the carbon footprint, particularly in terms of transport. This represents a risk for outlets in this market, particularly in Europe,” he said.

Product traceability has become a priority, Dumas says as he mentions another trend, particularly in the context of food safety and health risk management.

“The advent of e-commerce is also having an impact on this market. More and more consumers are buying fresh produce online, creating new opportunities and challenges for supply companies in Africa,” he added.

“Finally, it should be noted that Africa is facing increased competition from other producing regions, such as Latin America and Asia,” he added.

Dumas mentions flowers and perishables as a very important sector for the Ostend–Bruges International Airport in Belgium, which he points out specialises in receiving, handling and shipping perishable goods from Africa in a very short time.

“This is the main activity of our first customer, Egyptair, which uses Ostend-Bruges Airport for the speed of its operations. Here, goods leave the airport on lorries even before the plane that brought them has taken off again,” he said.

Ostend-Bruges, according to him, is also an ideal point of entry for the transport of agricultural products to both continental Europe and the UK.

He added, “We are less than an hour's drive from the Channel Tunnel to the UK. We offer a basic solution that is unique in Europe, enabling players in the supply chain to make substantial savings on their operating costs.”

African producers are exploring new markets to avoid the drop that occurred due to an unstable European market.

A recent example would be the Kenyan avocados to China and Ethiopian mangos to the Middle East. This way they can diversify their markets and mitigate similar challenges in the future.

farmers are cautious about the environment and are seeking the best practices to apply sustainable solutions. They are also applying digital solutions with real-time trackers. On their side, the governments are spending on infrastructure to make sure that the industry of flowers and perishables farming gets to destined markets without hustle.

Meanwhile, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company spokesperson points out that there's growing market demand for products like avocados in Europe and India, boosting exports through ports like Mombasa, Djibouti, and Dar Es Salaam.

“There is a noticeable shift from air freight to more sustainable alternatives due to global warming issues. Major retailers like Lidl and Tesco are moving towards reducing their carbon emissions by phasing out air freight for fresh products. As a response, MSC has observed a growth in reefer volumes by 5-10% on a yearly basis as exporters move towards more sustainable transportation modes. The company offers a comprehensive suite of digital solutions to facilitate the documentation process and cargo pick-up/delivery,” he said.

The East Africa Community’s total export value for edible vegetables, and certain roots, tubers, edible fruit and nuts, and peels of citrus fruit or melons represents a total of $1.1 billion in 2022 as per the International Trade Centre data. The EAC, in its 2021-2031 strategic plan for fresh fruits and vegetables, intends to double its exports to $900 million in the next eight years.

The expansion of exports, as seen in the strategic plans of the East African Community, presents a substantial opportunity for logistics companies.

MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company spokesperson said, “The expected growth in exports and the region's aim to increase production areas significantly open avenues for logistics firms to offer innovative solutions and support this expansion. The shift towards more sustainable transportation methods and the increase in demand for African perishables globally make the sector ripe for logistics advancements and expansions.”

According to him, adapting to global market demands, particularly from the EU, requires a shift towards maritime transportation and other sustainable practices.

Africa is focusing on shifting their infrastructure to accommodate the growth of their produced perishables and flowers delivered to the world.

To build such an infrastructure requires a lot of investments and innovative technologies. Some countries in Africa are more advanced in this area than others. Yet overall, the road is very long to reach the potential.

Talking about the future of logistics that handle the African perishables, Dumas said, “The adoption of advanced technologies is also necessary to enhance transparency, security and efficiency throughout the supply chain. The development of strategic partnerships can strengthen supply chain capabilities, promote access to new markets and stimulate innovation. Finally, exploring new markets and diversifying product ranges can help reduce dependence on overly specialised markets, while offering opportunities for growth and differentiation in the global marketplace.”

This feature was originally published in the Mar-Apr 2024 issue of Logistics Update Africa

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