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From flowers to beans: How Kenya's airport fire could destabilize economy

By John Defterios, CNN
updated 1:15 PM EDT, Wed August 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kenya is East Africa's largest economy and has made a big push to carve out its space in the global market
  • Tea, horticulture and tourism all bring in about $1 billion in revenue to the Kenyan economy each year
  • Kenyan authorities are working to normalize operations as quickly as possible with a sizable effort

Editor's note: CNN's John Defterios is CNN's Emerging Markets Editor and anchor of Global Exchange. Watch the Sunday to Thursday 1900 UAE and follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Whether it is Nairobi, Dubai or London, a major airport is the heart to an economy -- especially one dependent on exports and tourism.

Kenya is dependent on both, after it worked over the last decade to become, in particular, a major tea and flower exporter.

A third of all flowers in Europe come from Kenya, with a special emphasis on rose production. And nearly everyone has come across Kenyan green beans, whether you live in Europe, the Middle East or Asia.

Read more: Kenya airport resuming some flights after massive fire

Jomo Kenyatta is the busiest airport in East Africa and the fourth busiest in sub-Sahara Africa, with six and a half million passengers.

Kenyan authorities are working to normalize operations as quickly as possible, with a sizable effort to shift international traffic into the domestic terminal so flights from outside Africa can re-start Thursday.

Watch more: Firefighters battle huge blaze

Did President Obama snub Kenya?

Jane Ngige, CEO of the Kenya Flower Council, told CNN this is the low season for flower exports, and therefore there is not a warehousing overflow yet.

Growing roses with recycled water

She has advised growers to hold back the cutting of their products until there is clarity at Kenyatta airport. The other two airports -- Mombassa on the East coast and Kisumu in the West -- don't have the refrigeration capacity to manage Kenya's export requirements, she told CNN.

Kenya is East Africa's largest economy and has made a big push to carve out its space in the global market. Tea, horticulture and tourism all bring in about $1 billion in revenue each year.

Read more: How African innovation can take on the world

Tour operators have been dealing with a whole series of setbacks to the country's image. Al-Shabaab militants have crossed over the border into Kenya from Somalia and Nairobi has tried to take a tough line in its counter-terror efforts.

The lead-up to the presidential election provided its own element of uncertainty and violence, not entirely unusual on the continent.

Read more: Obama pledges $7 billion to upgrade power in Africa

A major fire at an airport hub creates its own is a logistical nightmare, but this leads to the question whether there was any link to the U.S. embassy bombing which took place 15 years ago to the day.

The mere sight of these pictures may make those with bookings think twice, ahead of the prime season for safaris in world renowned locations such as the Massai Mara National Game Reserve.

Watch more: Welcome to Kenya

The Kenyan Tourism Board says the country attracted 1.78 million visitors last year, with revenues of just over $1 billion, but the ambitious target to three million may need to be re-worked depending on how long the rebuilding of the terminal takes and what a follow up investigation uncovers.

President Uhuru Kenyatta will need to move swiftly to allay fears of on-going disruption to tourism or commerce.

The major Gulf carriers have not hesitated to blaze new trails into East Africa using Jomo Kenyatta as their hub. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are all running daily flights, trying to tap not only the tourism market but to forge new trade ties into one of the fastest growing regions of the world.

In statement, Dubai's carrier said, "Emirates is closely monitoring the situation and regrets the inconvenience caused to customers." It has suspended its flights until further notice. Etihad is hoping to fly Thursday with a larger plane to accommodate those stranded on Wednesday.

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