New Delhi: Even a thick cloud of volcanic ash can have a distinct silver lining. For India’s floriculturists, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull—and the subsequent shutting down of northern Europe’s airspace—has pinched only a little, coming as it does towards the end of the six-month season of flower exports.
So as is always the case around this time of the year, Manjunath Reddy is only in first or second gear. His Bangalore-based company, Pushpam Florabase, has recovered from the Easter rush and is preparing for one last spike of activity for Mother’s Day, at the beginning of May, before exports cease entirely until October. “On an average, around about now, we’d be making maybe two or three small shipments a week,” Reddy says. “Luckily for us, exports are at their slowest ebb now.”
Indian flower exports have been declining for the last few years, since a peak of Rs649 crore in 2006-07. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda) had initially set a target of Rs1,000 crore for flower exports in 2010, but as exports continued to slip that figure had to be revised recently to Rs375 crore.
Reddy says that he is, at the moment, worried, but he doesn’t see any reason to descend into panic. After he preserved his flowers for a couple of days, he read in the newspapers that flights to Europe would continue to be grounded, so he sold them locally. “In India, there’s a domestic market that can absorb our flowers, and maybe this gives us a chance to rest our plants a little also,” he says. But he also ships $25,000 (Rs11.2 lakh) worth of roses from Ethiopia to London every week, and that sector “has completely shut down. There’s no local market there, so we’re looking at some losses”.
What could prolong Reddy’s concern is what he calls “the cascading effect”. Airlines, when they get back off the ground, will clear backlogs of other general cargo first before they come to flowers, which are voluminous, but low-revenue. “That would really cause some problems,” Reddy says. “So for things to go well, the airlines have to resume operations very soon, and they have to clear their backlogs rapidly.”
In times of trouble, exporters such as Reddy would look for help to Apeda. “So far at least, nobody has contacted us,” says R.K. Boyal, general manager for (among other industries) floriculture. “It’s a good thing the season will end soon. This is a natural calamity; what can anybody do about it, after all?”
Other exporters also express only degrees of mild concern. Ramesh Patil, CEO of Shrivardhan Biotech, an exporter in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, stopped exporting flowers at the end of March “because of the heat”, and he will only send a few blooms to Japan in June. One employee at Venus Associates, a Bangalore-based firm, admitted on condition of anonymity that “we are a little worried about Mother’s Day”.
Only the odd exporter, such as Mumbai-based Soex Flora, continues to export flowers —shorter stems, duller buds —through the Indian summer. Soex Flora ships 200,000 flowers every week to the UK and the Netherlands, vice-president Narender Patil estimates.
“All of this has to now go into the domestic market,” Patil says. “And you know, the local traders know very well that we’re offloading export stock, so they’ll pay a lesser price.” Soex’s roses, grown and cut in a farm outside Lonavala, can be stored in a deep freeze for only two-three days before they must be jettisoned. Patil made his last shipment to Europe on 13 April. “It’s been chaos since then.”
The last few days have served up a double whammy of sorts to Soex Flora. Even as the season for exporting flowers has waned, the season for exporting mangoes will soon begin. Other fruit merchants see their season starting in the middle of May. Rangaswamy Durairaj, who runs Mother India Farms in Bangalore, expects flights to be back on track by 15 May. “So there’s no problem with logistics as yet.”
But Soex Flora began its exports of alphonso mangoes a couple of weeks ago, buoyed by an early harvest in Maharashtra. “It’s the first year we’re exporting mangoes. We were sending three shipments a week, of 500kg apiece, to the UK,” Patil says ruefully. “But mangoes can always go easily back into the local market. It’s the flowers that are really hurting us.”