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Coronavirus inflicts pain on horticulture exporters

The government says it is monitoring the situation to assess the effect and devise mitigation measures

Kampala, Uganda | ISAAC KHISA | As Uganda remains vigilant on the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) around the globe, its horticulture industry is already feeling the pinch as airlines temporarily suspend flights to potential market destinations.

With the exception of Ethiopian Airlines, all African carriers including Kenya Airways, RwandAir, Air Tanzania and Air Royal Maroc have suspended their flights to various destinations in Europe and Asia including Italy, Spain, Philippines and China, a step that has hampered export of the country’s horticulture products.

Emirates, which had remained as the only alternative airline to transport the country’s cargo to the market abroad through its hub in the Middle East,  has reduced its flights to Entebbe till April 29 citing operational reasons.

Emmanuel Mutahunga, commissioner for external trade at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives told The Independent in an interview that the current Coronavirus spread is likely to threaten the country’s horticulture sub-sector.

“We are likely to see the effect of COVID-19 going forward,” he said, “If people are not able to access products, certainly that affects demand.”

Mutahunga, however, said the government is monitoring the situation to assess the effect and devise measures for mitigation.

Uganda exports various horticulture products including Coffee, tea, flowers, beans, fresh vegetables and fruits abroad, earning the farmers and the country millions of dollars.

Coffee exports, for instance, have increased from as low as 3.31million 60kg million bags worth US$ 398million in 2008 to 4.17million 60kg million bags worth US$436.4million in 2018, according to statistics from Bank of Uganda (BoU).

Tea exports have also increased from 46,044 tonnes worth US$ 47.35million to 70,362 tonnes worth US$ 88.8million during the same period under review.

Beans exports have increased from 31,525 tonnes worth US$12.8million in 2008 to 218,817 tonnes worth US$ 99million in 2018.

Similarly, fruits and vegetables export registered a sharp increase from 16,586 tonnes worth US$14.3millio to 95,215 tonnes worth US$40.6million during the period under review.

However, flower exports have slightly dropped from 6,621 tonnes worth US$46.5million in 2008 to 6,260 tonnes worth US$60.89million in 2018.

With the COVID-19 confirmed cases now in the neighbouring Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, DRC and Somalia, Ugandan horticulture exporters are in panic that the virus could be another blow to the farmers who are already battling with issues of raising production.

Philip Onzomo, the Co-Founder and Managing Director at Immanuel Agro Limited who have been exporting over four tonnes per week of horticulture products told NTV on March.12 that they are already experienced a 20-25% decline in export volumes as airlines suspend flights to the affected countries.

“The alternative was to get into Rome, (Italy) but now Rome is 600km from Milani, (Philippine), and essentially shipping into Rome despite the availability of flights implies that the buyer would incur the cost of moving the goods into Milan and that automatically destroys into your business case,” he said.

“There’s also a problem in the retail where shops have been closed, so typically our products would be probably on corner stands or kiosks. So, if those kiosks are closed, then the offtake from wholesale is going to be that much compromised.”

Samuel Balagadde, the chairperson of Horticulture Organization for Promotion and Empowerment, said the farmers growing hot pepper, matooke and sweet potatoes among other crops, are stuck with their produce as Italy closes down as a result of COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our major export product to the export market is hot pepper which is very hot and not eaten in Uganda,” he said.

“So, if we don’t export it, it has no use to the Ugandan market…we have to harvest it and dispose it off in pits.”

Balagadde said they hope that pandemic ends soon as they seek for interventions such as value addition that will help farmers sustain their production.

“Instead of relying on international market, let us also grow crops that we can also sale in Uganda and the region,” he added.

COVID-19, which started in Wuhan, China, last year has spread to more than140 countries globally, killing more than 6,400 people and more than 160,000 people infected, according to World Health Organisations.

With the exception of China that has seen COVID-19 infection sharply drop, Italy has reported more than 1,809 cases while the number of positive cases rose to 24,747 people.  Italy is currently on nationwide lockdown t contain Coronavirus.

In the Philippines, the capital Manila has been sealed off, with its 12 million residents told to avoid travel for a month. Schools in the city have been closed and large events banned.

Spain became the second European country to impose a nationwide lockdown after 2,000 new cases were confirmed and the number of reported deaths doubled.

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