Page last updated at 15:23 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 16:23 UK

African viewpoint: Going nowhere fast

A plume of ash 8.5km (5.3 miles) high erupting from Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano [17 April 2010]

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene considers the lessons for Africa in the fallout of the Icelandic volcano, when the rest of the world learnt to go nowhere fast.

The world is made up of two types of people: those who make plans and those of us who muddle through.

You would think we would be great chocolate connoisseurs since we grow the best cocoa beans in the world

Over the last 10 days, as much of the world was brought to a complete standstill by the Icelandic volcanic ash, it would seem the muddle through brigade has had one of those rare moments to claim the upper hand.

All the best laid out plans were thrown into chaos as airlines around the world were grounded.

The eruption might have been in Iceland, the ash might have been in European skies but the effect has been a truly global phenomenon.

European airports were closed and the no-fly zones applied to their skies, but most African airlines and their passengers suddenly found they were going nowhere fast, as they say in South Africa.

Many people in our parts of the world do not immediately identify with stranded holiday makers and tourists who are trying to get money transferred to them because they are forced to spend an extra few days in a four-star hotel.

Farm workers use pitch forks to load a truck with discarded fresh roses at a flower exporter's farm in Naivasha, Kenya [19 April 2010]
Flower and vegetable farmers were forced to discard their perishable produce

That is not the type of problem that we worry about, or so we thought.

But less than 24 hours after the volcanic eruption in Iceland and the consequent closure of the European skies, businesses in Africa and the most vulnerable workers were being hit really hard. Farmers from as far apart as Kenya, Ghana and Zambia were suddenly thrust into the volcanic ash headlines.

Kenya's cut-flower and gourmet vegetable industry was the hardest hit. These are not your usual African farmers who finish growing their produce and then look around for someone to buy them.

Theirs is a sophisticated, well-oiled operation.

They plan everything with precision and deliver the produce to the discerning shoppers in Europe daily.

Then a volcano erupted some 5,000 miles (8,000km) away.

Food for cows

Suddenly the pickers were not picking, the washers were not washing, the packers were not packing and the temporary workers were being asked to go home and for six days, the £3m ($4.5m) a day operation came to a staggering halt.

A fruit seller holds six-day old egg plants from Ghana at a market in London [21 April 2010]
Fresh African produce became very scarce in Europe

They had done nothing wrong, their quality goods were available and as much sought after as ever, but an unplanned, spectacular natural event in Iceland had somehow managed to break the well-oiled chain and the exotic flowers and gourmet vegetables were reduced to food for cows.

One official put it in the most heart breaking manner: "Flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys."

Indeed, nor does the average Nigerian, Zambian, Senegalese or Ghanaian for that matter.

We in Ghana are still trying to coax our population to get into the chocolate-eating habit.

You would think we would be great chocolate connoisseurs since we grow the best cocoa beans in the world.

But we have not been able to shed the favourite beverage of the colonial master.

Even those among us that would have a cocoa drink, might be heard asking for "cocoa-tea", tea being the generic name for a hot drink in Ghana.

'Man proposes, God laughs'

Mercifully, the planes are back flying and the growers, pickers, washers, packers in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and other African countries are back in their places in the chain making sure that sliced fruit, gourmet vegetable and cut flowers are delivered to European supermarkets.

But are there any lessons to be learnt?

Should we teach our young to add the giving of flowers to courtship and learn to eat the gourmet vegetables we grow for the European palate?

If the businesses on the continent that show we are part of this global economy can be reduced to nothing by a volcano thousands of miles away, I am simply left to contemplate on the futility of life.

A plane goes through clouds as it takes off from Fiumicino airport near Rome
The skies are once more filled with aeroplanes

Every language I know has a saying that captures this impotence of man that we humans often choose to forget; but the Jews, I think, put it best, they say, "Man proposes, and God laughs."

The spectacular eruptions do not look exactly like laughter, but the consequences certainly look like someone has a terrible sense of humour.

And I am tempted to remain with the muddle through brigade.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

No arguments with many of the things in the article and the comments - I tried recently to find wholly Ghanaian choccy at the Accra Airport and it was not easy. I do wonder however why I unlike some of those writing here seem to have so many African female relations and women friends who adore flowers. In Zambia we have them in our houses, at weddings and decorating other festive occasions. Many of the same women grow their own flowers too. In villages its not as common as in town but it far from unheard of for people to have some goat resistant varieties around their homes even there.

"They believe in hard cash, Italian shoes and bags and jewelleries". Dear Omorodion Osula when you come to Lusaka which is not actually the most salubrious of garden cities let me take you around to my friends homes to smell the roses or at the end of the rains come and see the zinnias growing wild around our village in the eastern province. I don't remember who planted them but there they are, painted as splashy as a Monet amongst the tall green grass. Last year my cousin-in-law greeted my newly-married daughter and her husband with jars of the same flowers placed all over our home. She does not seem to feel that at aged 74 and a custodian of tradition firewood and flowers are somehow mutually exclusive...
Gwenda Chongwe, Chongwe Zambia

The truth is that an average African doesn't have the financial power to waste on luxury products like flowers and vegetables. Our per capita income is nothing to write home about hence there's no security or assurance for tomorrow, we've to spend rationally. Besides, because of the poverty, the girls & boys are only interested in raw cash & material gift items. On the other hand, can't we see, the whites are only interested in our flowers, vegetables & chocolate when things are going fine with them. God save Africa.
Tsala Ben, Abuja, Nigeria

Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta namely, "An unprompted excuse is an obvious self accusation." Africa has much dependency on Europe thanks to colonial legacy. We need to switch to China, the monster that eats anything put before it. Importantly, the gains we get from our trade must empower our people so as to create a reliable and viable market among ourselves as it is for Europe.
Nkwazi Mhango, Canada

I was wondering why we couldn't fly the produce to North Africa and ship them to Europe. Was it lack of shipping capacity along the North African Coast?
Solomon Asare, Accra, Ghana

The question is not whether African woman likes flowers or not but rather, how Africa should tap European Markets for her flowers, garbages, coffee and cocoa to name but a few before US enters these Markets, while Europe should consider aiding these transatlantic trades with Africa in place of raw hand out cash aids to African governments. There is nothing wrong with trade in place of aid.
Sunny Ekwenugo, Belin

stephenwang, bata

This Icelandic eruption grounded flights because of its strategic position on the globe as well as the enormous smoke and ash emitted. This Icelandic ash reminds me of what happened in St Helen some years ago. The thick white fumerol is not only a catalyst of climate change but a potential pollutant. Man has to be indeed scared of NATURE when it sneezes. Who is NATURE? is mankind the cause of this? certainly NO! We need to trust in God and be prayerful so that all these natural disasters that have struck our planet in recent years should be reduced.

Eating chocolate is consider as luxury to most cocoa producing countries especially in Cameroon where an average citizen finds it difficult to buy a tablet of chocolate at 125 FCFA everyday. Not to talk of flowers! Giving flowers to love ones or friends may earn you a slap on the face at the end of the day.

The western world reminds the sole consumer of most African agricultural products. Using flowers is more of a western culture and consuming chocolate is not a common practice.
VEGAH Brian, Bamenda, Cameroon


The volcanic eruption and its disruption of the horticulture trade with some African countries, is just a reminder of how lax we have been in developing our continent. The suggestion that Africans should give each other more flowers and eat more chocolates is totally ridiculous. We should not be wasting acreage growing these "cash crops". They just further augment the old exploitative colonial master relationship of African countries and Europe. While exporting these items to Europe, many in the continent are still going hungry. Who controls the global prices of all the items that were mentioned in the article? I bet you not Africans. It's time we dedicated more time growing crops consumed locally and within the continent. In addition, industrialization needs to be on the top agenda, no more lip service by myopic leaders. Africa needs to grow the infrastructure on the continent and pursue more robust trade among continental states instead of still playing the servant to Europe. The so called 'elite' in Africa need to wake up and build Africa and stop misleading the continent into playing beggarly positions in world trade and politics. And it's high time the continent also stood up to the international banks that have been exploiting Africa with loans and interest rates since the colonial era.
Ndemi, Kenya

I don't think we must create an actual culture or market for the things we ship off to Europe, but it should be established within us enough that such produce does not go to waste. We hear every day about food scarcity, and I hoped that upon realising the situation the companies who could not deliver their produce to Europe, would distribute them FOR FREE amongst the population in goodwill and that it would equally be gratefully accepted. This may not have happened but perhaps situations like this give rise to food for thought, or even thought for food.
Adjoa, Manchester, UK

Well, Elizabeth had said it all, but i guess the lesson leant should be from both side, the produce and the consumer. We live in a world where we as humans depend on each other for food and others stuffs. so i guess is about time every one starts to work harder most especially Africans in Africa.
Garmie Voupawoe, Monrovia, Liberia

Thank you Lizzy for this interesting article. What happened in Iceland is a stark reminder about how powerful nature is. Man is usually helpless when nature strikes. From the tsunami to the earthquake in Haiti, China and Chile and the drought in Niger, it shows how strong and powerful nature is. These and other events are enough for us to continue to respect and trust in God. Close to two billion dollars was lost by airlines to the ashes and more than sixty-three thousand flights cancelled. If were put together the loss suffered by other businesses from around the world as a result of this ashes, we are looking at hundreds of billions of dollars. As for the flowers, most African women don't believe in that. They believe in hard cash, Italian shoes and bags and jewelleries. A sister once made it categorically clear that she doesn't believe in flowers because she is not from the West. Therefore, flower is Un-African. As for me, I am just eating chocolate but my grandmother her used to cook the succulent cocoa leaves. It's delicious! Chocolate does not fill you up like food...this explains why our people are reluctant to eat it. Because of the poverty level in our motherland, a lot of people are more interested in something that will fill them up rather than something to just snack on. It will take time but our people will get used to giving and accepting flowers and eating chocolates.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

L'uomo propone e Dio dispone [Man proposes and God delivers], that sounds more or less in Italian. It would be always good advice to add, anytime we have some plans, Insha'Allah. We could live much much better and enjoy life much much more.
Stella Mischiatti, Montegrotto, Italy

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