‘In Africa, people have nothing to fall back on’

Olav Boenders is the CEO of Ugandan cutting company Wagagai. The most important products shipped to Europe from this African country are chrysanthemum, begonia and poinsettia. Uganda is in lockdown, but at Wagagai, it’s business as usual. However, they do hope that the coronavirus won’t control economic life in Europe for much longer. “The coronavirus has major consequences for the floricultural industry and for the Ugandan population. In Africa, people have nothing to fall back on.”

How are you keeping?

“Not too bad, considering the circumstances. I’m in the Netherlands. I was supposed to return to Uganda last week, but that was no longer possible. Uganda is in lockdown because of the coronavirus. All passenger flights have been cancelled.”

How badly affected is Uganda by the coronavirus?

“The first cases were reported two weeks ago. They were related to travel from Dubai. The people were immediately put in quarantine, and their immediate contacts too. I have great respect for the way president Yoweri Museveni has been handling the crisis. Very controlled and calm. So far, around 50 cases have been reported. The people who had been in contact with these cases were tested too, but they all tested negative. There hasn’t been an explosion of coronavirus infections so far. The spread is remarkably slow. The numbers have been increasing much faster in the Netherlands than in Uganda and Kenya. It is striking, because there are many Chinese people working in the building industry in Uganda, and many of them returned from family visits to China around the Chinese New Year. You’d think that those movements would have resulted in many more infections. There are studies suggesting that the virus can’t survive in hot and humid climates. And there are theories that there’s a connection with malaria. Many Ugandans have had this disease, which might make them less susceptible to the coronavirus. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a lifeline I try to hang on to in these turbulent times.”

How are things at the Wagagai farm?

“The country is in lockdown, which means that nobody is allowed to go anywhere. Some of our employees and managers, 530 of the total 2,000, are quarantined at our farm. We’ve purchased mattresses and mosquito nets, so that they have a place to sleep. This way, at least some of the work can continue. It should be just enough to get by in the coming weeks. We have enough space to put up more people at the farm, but there’s no real need for it at the moment. We’ll review the situation on a weekly basis. It’s been great to see how the local team did everything they possibly could to achieve this. The atmosphere is quite relaxed, it’s like we’ve organised the biggest sleepover ever.”

What about the employees who are at home?

“Cutting and rose companies in Uganda employ around 10,000 people. 80% of those are now at home. Cutting companies and rose growers are paying employees their normal wages for April. Rose companies are experiencing the biggest liquidity problems, as they’ve been hit much more directly and harder, with exports dropping by 80-90%. We also offer employees the option of taking early holidays. We hope they’ll be able to return to work after April. But if the coronavirus continues to control economic life in Europe, this will have a huge impact on the floriculture industry and on the Ugandan population, as well as on people in other places. Like Costa Rica, Kenya and many other countries. The events that are taking place in Europe are tragic, but at least people there have access to medical care and food and drink. In Africa, people have nothing to fall back on, they really do lose everything. They die of hunger or a lack of medical care, or of the next disaster.”

What’s the demand like at the moment?

“We have no problem meeting the demand, but the orders from Europe have been going down each week. The situation in Europe determines how the Ugandan industry is going to develop. We produce lots of chrysanthemum cuttings, and the chrysanthemum growers have been hit hard. We’re heading towards the summer now, which is always a quieter time for us. We’ve just shipped all our pot plants and bedding plants. They are now at nurseries that might no longer need them. We’ve just planted the poinsettias at our farm. We’re hoping to ship poinsettia cuttings in June and July.”

Can products still leave the country?

“Turkish Airlines and Euro Cargo Aviation are still flying and there are a few other options as well. Cargo is a lifeline, the government decided they must keep operating. The number of flights per week has gone down from 4-5 to 2-3, but that’s enough for us because it’s outside the cuttings season. Luckily, the airlines aren’t taking advantage of the situation either. The rates are more or less the same. That shows we’re real partners in good times and in bad times. With 8 rose growers and 5 cutting companies, the Ugandan floriculture industry is only small. Everybody knows each other. At this difficult time, all the companies are working closely together. That’s great to see, it gives hope in these surreal times.”

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