Business as usual? How companies in Kenya and Tanzania coped with COVID-19

Although the news around the world was speaking about an economic standstill, agribusinesses also has another story. Business doesn’t stop, crops keep growing and employees need labor. We know now that the pandemic has clearly left and continues to leave an impact on our lives as we know it, but we were wondering how some of the agribusinesses in our network kept going during this pandemic. We reached out to hear their stories and learned that for example, some of the agribusinesses developed new strategies and techniques.

Mid-March 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases is rising around the world, until then both Tanzania and Kenya have not been hit hard but caution was advised. Both governments within a short amount of time decide to put multiple measures in place to control the situation, to limit the possible impact. In Kenya a curfew is put in place, country and county boarders close and only essential shops stay open. In Tanzania  restrictions were also implemented to curb the spread of the virus. These measures naturally impacted the way businesses continue their day-to-day operations.  

Beeld: Solidaridad Tanzania
Working while implementing social distancing and personal protection

Can we keep going as usual?

For one, social distancing protocols make it difficult, if not impossible to work within old structures. A clear example faced by many agribusinesses in Kenya, is that with the curfew in place employers had to house staff on the farm to make sure everyone is able to make it to work and back home without breaking the curfew. Moreover, our contacts indicated that doing business is not as easy as before, mainly because they face the challenge of guaranteeing the safety of their staff.  Several businesses decided that staff can no longer make use of public transport, a before often used mean of transportation. Putting pressure on companies to continue business as usual with less staff.

At the same time, many office workers had to change to working remotely, from home. Although the work stays often the same this does require a very different approach from both the employee, the manager and the families who are now often more closely involved. But also what to do with the signing of documents? One flower farm, indicated that they implemented what would have been seen as impossible before, online signatures. When productivity is at stake, radical change in the way of working was required.  

“ By cutting out the paper trail, implementing online signatures, and allowing a great flexibility in the way of working, we made working remotely possible.” – Flower Farmer in Kenya

COVID-19 forced companies to re-evaluate their processes, which in some cases let to a more efficient and flexible way of working.

Demand and supply

For some of the companies we talked to, the demand and supply of inputs wasn’t affected, or not directly. For others the situation continuous to change every other day. With less passenger flights the availability of cargo transport dropped significantly and with less events around the world the demand for flowers and specific food products decreased. This not only affected the export market, also local markets and service providers quickly noted a change.

“ In Tanzania we saw that more and more people are getting involved into agriculture because food is always needed also during a crisis like COVID-19.”     

 - Honorary Council of the Netherlands in Tanzania.

Beeld: ©FPEAK
Flowers on the seats that normally are used by passengers, one way to keep the air bridge to Europe open

Due to extensive lobbying from both private and public partners the availability of cargo flights increased rather quickly. Positively impacting the markets focused on export, even though things have not yet returned to the old situation.

Where some sectors, like the floriculture sector, faced severe losses, others thrived. With a growing demand for fruits during the pandemic, where the avocado is being recommended for its high alkaline content, a surge in exports took place. Kenyan avocado exports hit a record high in the first half of 2020 with more than 58,400 tonnes sold. According to CEO of the Avocado Society of Kenya Mr. Muthomi, the country earned more than Sh8 billion from exports. The Netherlands remained the lead importer of the Kenyan Avocado.

However, a clear impact was noticed for businesses producing for the local markets of fresh produce both in Kenya and Tanzania; due to the closure of restaurants and hotels the demand declined. However one of the potato seed companies reported that at the same time interesting new markets did arise with for example healthcare facilities becoming new customers.

Companies depending on trans-border trade were also affected by the (temporary) closure of the border between Kenya and Tanzania. As the product could not reach the buyer this was a key moment in establishing and building on a strong seller-buyer relationship for future crop seasons.

“Things might also not return to the old situation. As they say – is this the new normal?”  – Flower Farmer in Kenya

The new normal?

As an entrepreneur one always needs to develop, to innovate and show the flexibility that comes with entrepreneurship, but the need for these skills has become more apparent now than ever before. When listing to the stories of the entrepreneurs in our network we clearly see the adaptability of entrepreneurs. Flower farmers changing to new markets, horticulture farms choosing different crops or expanding in terms of diversity and suppliers and service providers extending their scope, approach and knowledge. The COVID-19 period pushed many to work on developing new skills, interests and looking where to diversify or maybe increase their scope.

Employees in the floriculture share their experiences as they continue their work

Some, projects and companies have shown their creativity as they also took this period as an opportunity to get (more) involved in education and sharing knowledge. From an increased frequency, but reduced number of participants per course, to switching to online courses. These online courses require a new approach from the trainers in how to share knowledge, but they also offer opportunities as more people can participate . We all know that standing in the mud while learning can never be replaced, however many discovered the innovative possibilities of online courses/trainings/meetings. Our network also showed a renewed interest in older technics to reach out to their clients, for example by phone and radio.

“Let’s not look at the negative side of COVID-19, but embrace the opportunities that come with the challenges” – Seed supplier in Tanzania

You’re not alone!

Rapid change is never easy and changing due to something that’s out of your own control might be even harder. Even when focusing on the positive sides of the situation, we have to acknowledge that letting go of staff, downsizing and ending business relationships might also have been necessary to get through this situation.

The agriculture network in your country is there to help, share information through frequent updates on our website and  support you to the best of our ability. Are you a Dutch company active internationally, then you can also apply for a Kickstarter voucher, a onetime fund to hire an external advisor to discuss how to minimalize the impact of COVID-19 on your company.

Would you like to discuss your situation, expand your network and look in to how the agricultural team of the Embassy can be there for you during COVID-19 and in the aftermath? Please reach out to us, also with all other questions for the agriculture department by sending an email addressed directly to for Kenya and for Tanzania. For the latest updates, follow us on twitter on @NLAgiKenya & @NLAgriTanzania. Please also sign up for our newsletter with updates and opportunities even during CoVID-19 by sending us an email.