First direct flight Kenya – USA will take a while

At the end of February, it was announced that Kenya has been approved for direct flights to the United States. This is good news for flower exporters who want to ship from the East African country to the USA. However, it may take a while before the first Kenyan flowers reach the American shores without a stopover.

Arie-Frans Middelburg

The Kenya Flower Council (KFC), the association of Kenyan flower exporters, were delighted to hear that there are going to be direct flights between the United States and Kenya.

“We’re very keen to ship flowers straight to the American market. This is good news for the Kenyan horticultural industry. Hopefully, we’ll be able to send our flowers for the international floricultural show (IFE) in Chicago in June by direct flight”, was one of the enthusiastic responses from KFC on Facebook.

Two weeks later, Jane Ngige, CEO of KFC, is a bit more reserved. But still hopeful. She says: “We see opportunities, but we’re not saying that we’re going to invade the American flower market. Let’s do some research first.”


The news came as a bit of a surprise. American airline company Delta Air Lines already announced they were planning direct flights between Kenya and the USA around two years ago. But that never materialised. The security at Nairobi’s airport – Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – simply wasn’t good enough.

Even now, there are still some doubts regarding airport security. An insider, who works at the airport with a logistics company, said that not much has changed during the past two years. Flowers are often loaded literally from the public road onto the plane here.

It also seems that there aren’t enough scanning devices to scan all the flowers. There are two different types of devices, one of them scans four boxes per minute, the other one 60. According to the logistics worker, with the current scanning capacity you would need more than 24 hours to scan the daily flower exports of 45,000 boxes in total.

So what happens, is that a lot of flowers leave Kenya by plane without being scanned at all. Whatever the security regulations.

Nonetheless, after the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) audit in the last week of February Kenya was granted Category 1 status. Jan de Vegt, Chief Operating Officer with Kenya Airways, confirms this.

Kenya Airways is one of the most important airlines at Nairobi’s airport. According to De Vegt, all flowers transported by Kenya Airways are scanned. “And the fact that Kenya is now a Category 1 country, shows that the FAA is satisfied with the general safety regulations. However, before we can start flying a new route, we’ll have to go through another round of inspections.”

Not for a while

Kenya Airways isn’t the only airline company that will be allowed to fly between the two countries. The Category 1 rating is granted to a country, so any Kenyan or American airline that has suitable aircrafts and meets all the requirements, could fly the route.

But the first direct flights won’t be happening for a while, says De Vegt. The official explanation is that “Kenya Airways is going to conduct a commercial evaluation and talk with all relevant authorities in order to determine the viability and the timing of the entire operation”.

“The process of starting to fly to the USA takes time”, adds De Vegt. If Kenya Airways is going to have direct flights to the USA, they’ll be using a Boeing 787-8. Its capacity is limited to around 10 tons. De Vegt: “Flowers are a suitable air cargo commodity to ship to the USA, because they aren’t too heavy.”

Export is expensive

Even if it may take a while before the first Kenyan flowers are shipped straight to the USA, the advantages of direct flights are clear. At the moment, Kenyan flowers reach the United States via Europe or South Africa. That makes exporting to the USA expensive. Having a direct route must be cheaper. By how much, remains to be seen though.

Ngige feels it’s worthwhile to research what kind of opportunities the American market has to offer. She wants to find out whether there’s a place for Kenyan flowers on the American market. And what would be the best location to ship to. Would it be Miami, or are there any other important hubs for the flower trade?

Ngige does expect that Kenyan flower exports to the USA will increase. Just like the direct exports of Ethiopian flowers did before. According to Comtrade’s figures, the exports of roses from this East African country to the USA amounted to nearly 2.7 million dollar in 2016.

In anticipation of FAA’s permission for direct flights, Ngige has already been visiting trade shows in the USA – in Miami and Atlanta. The Americans are currently importing a lot of flowers from Colombia and Ecuador.

Despite this strong trade flow, Ngige feels there are definitely opportunities for Kenyan flowers. Ngige: “The South American flowers are heavy, they’ve got large flowers and long stems. Kenyan flowers have medium sized to small flowers. Kenyan flowers supplement the South American flowers rather than compete with them.”

KFC will be at the International Floriculture Expo in Chicago in June. But whether their flowers will be shipped with one of the first direct flights to America, is still uncertain.