Colombia and Ecuador struggle to keep the farm-fresh flower promise as supply chain disruption continues

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the fragility of supply chains, and floral is no exception. In the early days of the pandemic, the world’s commercial aircraft fleet had no choice to stay put. Now 20 months later, airlines worldwide have resumed their operations, but travel restrictions and quarantine measures continue to place a heavy constraint on floral air cargo capacity resulting in skyrocketing prices. Cargo agents need to sail all ships to cope with massive supply chain disruption in flower shipments by sea. In the November edition of FloraCulture International, FCI interviewed a grower, a freight handler, and Royal FloraHolland’s sales rep in Colombia to get first-hand information from Colombia and Ecuador.

With prolonged lockdowns, the Covid-19 pandemic led people to develop closer relationships with their homes. With that came a desire to create and maintain beautiful spaces, which led to unexpectedly high demand for cut flowers and ornamental plants. Good news for an industry constantly on the lookout for ways to increase consumption. So, as restrictions loosen, one hopes the trend will last, and fresh flowers around the home will become a new normal, especially in markets like the USA where specific dates or occasions mark flower purchases.
The huge reduction in air traffic left flower exporters scrambling to get their products to importing markets, and although airlines have resumed their business, it’s not yet up to speed. Sea freight has not had it easy either. Containers seem to have fallen into severe scarcity worldwide, possibly due to the commerce slowdown related to the pandemic, in China and Asia overall.

Paying airfreight to the USA at prices used for Europe

All this caused freight costs to skyrocket “to a point where we are paying airfreight to the USA at prices that we used to pay for Europe, three or four times pre-pandemic levels,” says José Barrera, Manager at Flores Funza in the Bogotá Savannah.

He adds that cargo space is hard to get, and flight frequency is often insufficient, forcing them into chartering planes at very high costs. Understandably, all these issues translate into complex logistical challenges. But demand is strong and flower prices relatively reasonable, “although not high enough to compensate for increased freight costs”, he states.

“Reduced passenger flights impact crew availability, and this constraints flight flexibility”, comments Maria Alexandra Rangel, General Manager for Latam Impex Services, a company providing a range of services related to cut flower exports in Colombia and Ecuador.

“Cargo capacity has been significantly reduced over the pandemic”, she adds, quoting as an example the 777 aircraft from Cargolux, departing three times a week from Colombia and Ecuador packed with flowers in the pre-pandemic era, which have not resumed their service at all.

Another big issue pushing up prices is the current lack of compensation cargo. Maria Alexandra believes these problems are worse in Ecuador than in Colombia.

Maritime transport

What about maritime transport? Pre-Covid, it seemed sea freight would grow considerably, offering a much cheaper and possible option for delivering high-quality flowers to the USA and Europe.
But over the past two years, that growth has just not happened, as is evident from figures supplied by industry body Asocolflores.

While sea freight has increased in 2021 compared to 2020, air freight still represents over 90 per cent of the shipping method selected for cut flowers from Colombia.
“Sea freight logistics are incredibly challenging,” says José Barrera.

He continues, “Colombian roads are terrible and trucks take two to three days from Bogotá to ports on the Caribbean coast, plus ground transport costs are terribly high.”

He says that trucking flowers to the coast can cost the same as the sea freight itself.

Complex paperwork, inspections (agriculture and antinarcotics) and an adequate cold chain are not always achievable.

This administrative delay can all negatively impact flower quality and vase life.

“Nevertheless sea freight continues to be a viable option for hardier flowers such as carnations, chrysanthemums and altroemerias,” states Maria Alexandra, adding that most of the bottlenecks caused by the administration can be solved by consolidating shipments and updated technology schemes.

Many newcomers to the floral scene

Royal FloraHolland’s sales rep in Colombia, Camila Camacho, expresses deep concerns about transport.

“At the start of the pandemic, many growers panicked and pruned back rose plants to make them almost dormant. When it become apparent that demand was not dwindling they tried to get the plants back into production, but the physiological process necessary for that to happen is slow and that, coupled with weather extremes we have seen since last year threw production and harvest logistics completely off balance.”

Increased demand is now driving the expansion of production areas in Colombia and Ecuador, she adds, mentioning hundreds of additional hectares of mostly roses, particularly in Ecuador where many informal growers are joining the scene.

This activity will likely put extra pressure on freight services, “to the point where we will have the customers, but will not be able to get their cargo to the end consumer on time.”

In closing off, however, everyone agrees that the flower industries in Colombia and Ecuador will, as always, bounce back and overcome this hurdle just as it has done with other issues in the past.

This problem is not the first time transport has become a challenge either.

It is one of the first significant hurdles the budding Colombian flower industry had faced over its 60 years’ history when the first flower exporters were established in the Bogota Savannah.

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