A study on sea freight opportunities to accelerate Kenya’s agricultural exports

Kenya exports a significant amount of products to the Netherlands, most of which are related to agriculture. Globally the main mode of transport for trade is ocean shipping, this is however not the case for Kenya. Most of it is transported by air as this is a quicker form of transportation. For agricultural products with a short shelf life such as flowers, fruits and vegetables this is especially important. In 2020 however, COVID-19 exposed the limitations of airfreight in Kenya.  Passenger flights carry freight in the belly of the plane and due to a high amount of flights being cancelled there was a huge shortfall of airfreight capacity. By increasing maritime shipping, Kenya can provide an alternative way of transporting goods, decrease costs and reduce its environmental footprint. This all leads to Kenya becoming more competitive in the region. 

Beeld: ©Live Love Well
Transport of fresh organic produce from Mombasa to Europe

For this reason the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Nairobi commissioned a study to gain insights into the challenges and opportunities of sea freight developments in Kenya and the impact on its agro-sector. The study analyzed the structure of sea freight logistics and identified bottlenecks and areas of inefficiencies that can be improved. The goal of the resulting report “A study on sea freight for Kenya’s agricultural exports” is to increase the competitiveness and robustness of the agricultural sector in Kenya.

Competition is on the move

The airfreight industry is well-developed in Kenya and highly flexible. However airfreight capacity will not increase in the short term and prices will likely rise in the future. Rising global greenhouse gas emissions also play their part. Consumers in Europe ask themselves whether they want to buy air shipped food and flowers from a carbon footprint point of view. Pilot projects to transport flowers and vegetables by sea have been conducted in the past by multiple companies, but airfreight has still been the most efficient and therefore the preferred choice of transport. The capacity, price and environmental aspect is resulting in production moving away from Kenya to countries, which do not require airfreight for supply into Europe.

To this day the sea freight industry for fresh produce is less developed and those involved are generally not accustomed to fresh produce exports. If sea freight is not embraced, Kenya might lose its leadership position in flower and vegetable production in the region. This will inevitably lead to a reduced European demand. Investors need an efficient sea freight industry in Kenya. Especially considering that countries like Colombia and Ethiopia might be more competitive as they develop their sea freight.

Accelerating volumes

The Port of Mombasa is a crucial landing point for goods and links to the Northern Corridor that runs west across the country to the neighboring countries markets of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sea freight industry for fresh produce in Kenya therefore has the potential to become many times larger than it is today. The number of shipping lines offering sea freight from Kenya has increased since 2020 and journey times are now below 30 days. Good results for sea freight shipment are seen for avocados, pineapples and flowers. The primary fresh product shipped by sea from Kenya is avocados, representing around 3,000 containers per year.

“The shipment of flowers by sea is steadily increasing, but was still only around 100 containers in 2020. If 20% of airfreight was transferred by sea this would result in over 100+ containers a week. To achieve this potential it was suggested by several interviewees that the Kenyan industry sets objectives, for instance to ship 50% in 2030 of the 2020 export volumes.”

Sea freight opens up the opportunity of new markets for Kenya. Bigger capacity and more competitive freight costs would increase sales to the Middle East or Far East, i.e. Singapore and China. Future national investments in sea freight would safeguard and potentially increase existing employment in the fresh produce and cut flower sector in Kenya. Furthermore, sea freight compared to airfreight could cut emissions by 85%.


To achieve the full potential of Kenyan agriculture and for it to remain competitive, the sea freight industry requires a boost. This report proposes a set of recommendations on how to do this.

Sea freight of agricultural exports has to become more efficient with more reliable and direct shipments to Western Europe and costs need to be brought down. The industry, together with the government of Kenya, will have to set an ambition for a certain proportion of products to be sent by sea by 2030. To achieve this, an enabling environment will need to be created by the government of Kenya and the other parties involved. This not only asks for a complete overhaul of Mombasa port with sufficient berths, good management and practices suitable for perishable goods, but also an optimal network of consolidation centers to support the further growth of avocado and other exports.

If you are interested in the outcomes of the study “A study on sea freight for Kenya’s agricultural exports” you can read the full report here.

For more information about this report or in case of other questions for the Agricultural Counsellor feel free to contact us via nai-lnv@minbuza.nl. For the latest updates follow us on twitter @NLAgriKenya or register for our newsletter by sending an email.