Planting the seed for growth: Astral Aviation

"The yield/rates for Flowers increased with 7% in 2020, a lower increase than all other product categories.” Chart via WorldACD

Momentum built from the last year has meant Kenya based Astral Aviation has hit the tarmac running into the New Year.

“2020 was an interesting year for Astral Aviation as it marked its 20th Anniversary in the midst of the biggest crisis in the aviation sector,” explains Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO of Astral.

“The outlook in February 2020 appeared bleak with the stoppage of passenger flights and the imposition of crew quarantine restrictions.”

Sanjeev Gadhia

But the drop in capacity from the decrease in passenger flights, proved the importance of cargo operations.

“Astral experienced an increase in cargo volumes from its Nairobi hub to its scheduled and charter network within Africa,” Gadhia adds.

“While supply-chains were fractured during the pandemic, the air-cargo industry met the challenges of the distribution of PPE and medical items, which in the case of Astral Aviation resulted in significant volumes from China to Africa and Intra-Africa, for six months until September 2020 when the volumes and capacity stabilised.

It is this increase in demand for cargo airlines that lead Astral to purchase an additional Boeing 767-200F freighter, which joined the fleet last week. The 767 will initially be used to distribute Covid vaccines across the continent and, when demand increases, to also export Kenyan flowers across the globe.

The freighter will offer unrivalled capacity for 80 ton per week of flowers and vegetables, mostly used on Astral’s UAE route.

Blooming shame

Kenya is the largest grower of flowers in Africa with a 40% market share in Europe but, Gadhia explains that due to a drop in demand during the pandemic, flower exports, especially to Europe saw “a significant reduction.”

For the past 6 years, Astral has operated a dedicated B747F from Nairobi to Doncaster Airport and one to Liege Airport, which offers capacity for cut flowers. If you’re picking up a bunch of roses this Valentines day in Waitrose, they will have it have come via an Astral flight.

However, the pandemic particularly affected the Kenyan flower market with devastating losses. 70% of flowers were destroyed and 50,000 flower farmers lost their jobs in 2020, Gadhia notes.

“Kenya exported 173,000 tons in 2019 but sadly in 2020 following the effects of Covid-19 in Europe, the exports of cut-flowers reduced by 70% due to the lack of demand from March which was followed by a lack of capacity from April due to the stoppage of flights.”

Astral continued to operate its scheduled flights during the pandemic despite the significant reduction in volumes of cut flowers. Demand for vegetables soared in Europe, so most flights reflected this.

Will the African flower market blossom?

Astral cut flower volume

“The flower industry will take many years to rebound and to get to the pre-Covid levels,” explains Gadhia. “However we have noticed a surge in demand for the upcoming Valentines Day which has resulted in many carriers increasing charter capacity for flowers from 28th January up to 10th February 2021 with a potential 20 additional charters to meet the added demand for the valentines period.”

Sadly this is not enough, as the pandemic has changed consumer-demand as experienced in 2020. It is likely for the flower industry to brace for lower-volumes in 2021 as its biggest market, Europe, is still experiencing the effects of the pandemic.

“But there is hope that the industry will recover in 2022 as the vaccine rollout will have been overcome in 2021.”

Gadhia remains “cautiously optimistic for 2021,” but assures the acquisition of the new Boeing is certainly “a sign of positivity”. This paired with the planned vaccine rollouts across the next two years will hopefully bring the flower market back to full bloom.