Posted by: beninmwangi | October 29, 2007

What if They Don’t Buy?


photo courtesy of: Bichu

This post I am writing in response to the story about the UK Soil Association’s decision to increase barriers to airfreight produce imports from other countries. When I read this story my heart became heavy for the Kenyan and Ghanaian farmers who will likely lose income and might ultimately be forced to sell or reorganize their farms; as a result of the harsh new standards imposed upon agricultural products flown into the UK from abroad.  Some are viewing this decision taken by the UK Soil Association as protectionist, I am not sure where I stand on this view yet-but it is difficult to completely rule out. However, it seems that this will most likely be the effect of their decision-that it might tip the balance of trade between the UK, Kenya, and Ghana drastically in the favor of the UK.

Here’s an excerpt from a BBCstory where they quoted Jane Ngigi, chief executive of the Kenya Flower Council:

“One minute we are talking about fair trade and market compliance, the next this is less of an issue and the issue is lessening the carbon footprint of the developed world possibly by cutting markets in Africa.

“It is so confusing.”

For Africa to export to UK and European markets, a smallholder farmer has to adhere to stringent environmental and ethical standards, which is a lengthy and expensive procedure.

African producers have worked very closely with supermarkets to ensure that these rigorous certification procedures are followed through resulting in the quality product the consumer buys.

Up until very recently I’d always seen the growth of the international organic food market to be the best thing to happen to farmers in countries like Kenya or Ghana. Organic produce farmers in these and other African nations appear to have a comparative advantage over their European counterparts within this small, but growing agricultural sector. And indeed over time this industry did in fact become an African farmers success story. However, according the the UK Soil Association the air freighted produce imported into the country threatens to increase the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. As a result, they are making extreme efforts to tighten controls on air freighted produce imports.

Kenyan Maize Farmer


  photo courtesy of: Computer Aid International

The UK Soil Association’s drive to cut carbon emissions by allowing less air freighted food on market shelves threatens the agricultural exports of several African nations. My understanding of how it would play out is that the association would require the companies exporting air produce to the UK to answer questions regarding fair labor and to show how they are working on ways to circumvent the need for produce to be sent to the UK by air. Those firms that don’t meet the raised standards will not be able to apply the organic label to their goods. Thus, if the producers of those high quality organic foods still want their products on the shelves of UK supermarkets-they can still do it but their products will not be shelved and sold in the organic section.  Instead they will have to compete with the less expensive produce goods in the non-organic produce sections.  This could mean that consumers would have no incentive to buy the more expensive African imports.

Again, I haven’t fully made up my mind on how to view this. But one thing is for sure-change is on the horizon for Africa’s farmers. If they in the West won’t buy, African nations may may need to look more at their neighbor states or perhaps other nations in the southern hemisphere to find new markets.

Ghanaian Cocoa Farmer


Photo Courtesy of: Wandering Ro

This is definitely a topic I’d like your input on. So please feel free to expound on what you feel African farmers should do to offset their possible upcoming losses or how you view this latest decision by the UK Soil Association.  BRE or Pablo, if you are reading, I am very curious to hear your thoughts.  Thanks.



  1. I do wonder if this is a lack of thought of the far ranging consequences or a protectionist response. I also wonder if this has actually been turned into action yet, the BBC article is from February and the only change I’ve seen has been the addition of air freight stickers on products which are hardly going to change buying behaviours (as you say it’s price changes that will)

  2. On the one hand we hear a lot these days from organizations like the World Bank and the IMF that we need to provide more support for Africa’s agricultural sectors and on the other we hear that we must do everything we can to halt global warming by reducing man-made carbon emissions and greenhouse gases and such.

    This whole EU argument about reducing carbon emissions by excluding or restricting imported foods from developing nations that have been transported by air is a lot of bunk.

    The BBC News article you referenced in this post has related story imbedded in the piece by Edward Gareth-Jones titled “Food Miles Don’t Go the Distance”. The article states:

    Indeed, the terms “food miles” was coined in order to convey to the general public that an awful lot of food travels an awful long way before it finally reaches our mouths.

    But food doesn’t have to travel from an exotic location in order for it to clock up food miles. UK-produced food can also travel substantial distances between farm, processors, storage depot and the supermarket.

    A lot of people object to this accumulation of food miles, and we seem to have increasing calls for “local food” and “slow food”. While those making these calls may seem to have common sense on their side, the science which could be used to underpin their arguments is at best confusing, and at worst absent.

    Read more at the BBC News website:

  3. Simon:

    Thanks for stopping by. The UK Soil Association actually deliberated on the measure on 25 Oct 2007. I think that the link BRE references goes into more detail. It sounds like you are in the UK. If so may I please ask you, are UK’s consumers at all concerned about such things as “food miles”? Most of the artciles that I’ve read don’t really have any voices from the consumers regarding this issue. Otherwise, have a good week.


    You have echoed my sentiments to the T. What unsettles me the most is that to date I have not heard of anyone from the IMF or World Bank come step in on the behalf of the nations whom they are always urging to be more open-in Africa, via the Structural Adjustment Programs. This coupled with the governments in the States + EU regions providing lucrative subsidies their agric. industries almost conveys a message that at the end of the day Africa’s export farmers are on their own. I will re-read the story that you pointed back to as well as the other link you’ve provided. Thanks.

    By the way, thanks for your support too during the time that I wasn’t writing. Everything that you said was true. I have truly appreciated that.

  4. You are very welcome and it’s good to see you back in business in the Sphere.

  5. (leaving aside the protectionist element…) Its a sign of changing times. Marketing and branding of agricultural products will increasingly become important. There is def an opportunity for African agricultural products to market and capitalize on their provenance – but this has not been done well until now.

    It not just in the UK that you are seeing a backlash against organic products. For one, b/c the standards for “organic” are very inconsistent and flexible. And second, the carbon impact of non-local foods. The carbon-value of foods will become a growing issue.

    I have also seen papers and conference participants argue that Africa should not be focusing on organic products. Given the need to feed a low-income domestic population and scarcity of arable land that is well located for export, all attention should be focused toward maximizing yields, ie: genetically modified.

  6. BRE:

    It is good to be back too!
    And your welcome has been wonderful!


    Thanks I am happy to hear from you. The funny thing about it is that I was just speaking with my father in law, according to him genetically modified livestock has hit Kenya like a fashion craze.

    From what he was saying the local population is very suspicious about those foods and generally do not consume much, but I think you have a point because export destinations are already accustomed to it.

    The weird thing about it is that it might cost more in Kenya to genetically modify than to produce organically. But relative to the cost structures outside of east Africa both might be considered low cost.

    Maybe if I might piggy back off of your idea, Kenyan farmers might explore exporting genetically enhanced and continue producing the organic produce for local consumption…Thanks for giving me a new way to look at this.

  7. My sense is that this is one of those rare issues where the green left and the commercial right can agree on an issue. The environmentally concerned (justifiably) want to reduce the amount of unnecessary air freight. The local business lobby (well, less justifiably) wants walls up around their products (but not their inputs). When such sentiments become policy, however, I find it hard to believe it’s because of the greens…

    Incidentlaly, great blog overall.

  8. Chris:

    Thanks for your insights. Yo down in you broke that down in a succinct manner. Excellent point.


  9. […] What if They Don’t Buy? […]

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