Ahead of Africa’s biggest flower season, there is a major doubt about whether there will be enough air freight capacity to carry the flowers from the continent to Europe. Interestingly, while Covid-19 vaccines are looking to take up most of the capacities, the stakeholders are prepared and are ready to transport them successfully because of careful planning.

It is that time of the year when the air freight industry is buzzing about getting ready to transport flowers from Africa to Europe. However, this is unlike any other year in the recent past because of the Covid-19 pandemic and this time around many cargo carriers not only have the necessity to allocate their resources but also the responsibility to help the world and vaccine manufacturers to combat the pandemic. It is a difficult time for them to make the most of the season but flowers have always held a special place in the lives of people and always manage to bring joy to all. Ahead of Valentine’s Day and the upcoming season, the sector is driven by an increasing demand and so cargo carriers are looking to do their best so that they are able to transport flowers across the world in the fastest way possible.

Flower power

With the global intensity of the pandemic, it has caused some disruption in operations, especially for Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, who are instrumental in bringing the flowers to Europe through the Netherlands. Eric Mauroux, global head Perishables Logistics, AFKLMP Cargo, talking about the current state of affairs says, “We have experienced disruption in some of our operations due to the Covid-19 crisis. However, the capacities available to carry perishables out of Africa have been relatively spared compared to other parts of the world because most of them are operated by freighters.” For example, he says that 80 per cent of the capacity the cargo carrier offers in Kenya comes from their cargo fleet, which has been operating normally throughout the crisis. This stems from the fact that the Franco-Dutch airline had made the strategic decision to dedicate most of their freighter capacity operated out of Amsterdam to the Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador flower markets.

Interestingly, the floriculture sector and the transportation of flowers is planned in advance because it is important for every stakeholder in the supply chain to understand the demand so that they can reduce the room for error. AFKLMP Cargo being an important part of the supply chain has already allocated their capacity out of Kenya, with their forwarders, who they have been working with for a very long time. It also moves around as much as 25 per cent of perishables throughout the year and because of the strong footprint, the cargo carrier has also perishable flows on high priority.

The pandemic has certainly changed the available air freight capacities but that doesn’t seem to affect the cargo carrier; instead they have allocated additional freighters for the season. “In addition to our regular full freighter flights, our passenger flights and the regular mini freighters we operate out of Kenya, we will offer three additional Boeing 777-200 full freighters, operated by Air France Cargo, from Nairobi to Amsterdam between January 25 and February 9,” adds Mauroux.

While air freight capacity seems to be the biggest challenge, Eline van den Berg, programme manager, Holland Flower Alliance says with the available capacity for Valentine’s Day and International Women’s Day, she does not see any substantial challenges. She explains, “During the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in March 2020, we were confronted with a relapse in capacity due to several reasons. Due to a shortage of capacity, the rates have increased. Capacity wise, the situation has fortunately largely recovered. The air freight rates also stabilised but ended on a higher level compared to the pre-Covid-19 rates.” For the upcoming season, van den Berg predicts, “Rates will be slightly higher compared to last season but will remain on the same level as last year. We are very happy with this because both the days are important for the flower industry.”

The Holland Flower Alliance (HFA), which also helps transport the flowers to other countries in Europe, carries out the operations by truck has already got their specifications like measurements and restrictions for the border-transport of goods and accessibility of flowers. While van den Berg says it is too early to predict what the 2021 flower season will look like, she informs, “Earlier, it was expected that the transport of vaccines may appeal to the capacity but it does not seem to be the case anymore.” However, the HFA is closely following the latest developments and will be prepared when the time comes.

In Africa, Kenya Airways in a Linkedin post has said they have deepened their collaboration with the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya, Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya and the Kenya Flower Council. Ahead of the season, they are looking to bolster the export of the country’s fresh produce through their cold room and state-of-the-art pharma facility at the Cargo Center in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi.

Getting into the packaging

Coming into this season, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport will not only have the support of the Holland Flower Alliance, which includes the airport along with Royal FloraHolland and KLM Cargo, but also the Circular Plastics Alliance. In August 2020, Schiphol Airport and Circular Plastics Alliance partnered with each other to help develop sustainable solutions for flower importers and to make their shipping solutions better. The Alliance has made standardised boxes with the help of recycled plastic and is aiming to reduce importers carbon footprint by 25 per cent and also increase their profitability by 25 per cent at the same time. This has certainly set the tone for the preparations for the African flower season now.

The need to reduce the carbon footprint is necessary because packaging of the flowers for transportation is an important aspect of the value chain, as it also helps maintain the product’s integrity till the end. While the stakeholders in Amsterdam, Netherlands have taken the necessary steps ahead of the season, in Africa, Nairobi-based Silpack is doing its part too. It is an active and instrumental part of the packaging industry for flowers and just like any other industry, the Kenyan company was affected with the Covid-19 pandemic. Parit Shah, managing director, Silpack, says the scarcity in air freight capacity has been one of the key impacts of the pandemic, because of which it has brought forward the long overdue shipments by sea, and storage of flowers at origin and destination. This, however, has kept Silpack busy as they participated in numerous projects to provide the necessary and appropriate designs and specifications for the packaging material. He highlights, “There has been the need to carefully select packaging that balances weight to performance. The sky high air freight costs have convinced a lot of exporters to use our Soliq Air boxes to save on air freight.” With the continued uncertainty in 2021, Shah thinks it is also the best opportunity for innovation and research in the flower packaging business. "This season has also changed the stakeholders are approaching packaging as there has been a clear shift towards the use of premium packaging products instead of the economical options," he says.

However, with the uncertainty there is an increasing need for forecasting and like many others, Silpack is constantly engaging with their customers to understand if they can help them with forecasts and if they are noticing any changes that will be helpful to cater better.

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