Faced with the logistical challenge of transporting vaccines against Covid, the airline company Kenya Airways hopes to establish itself as a key carrier for Africa, by relying on its expertise in the transport of fresh roses to Europe, which is crucial for respecting the cold chain.
About 3,000 tonnes of freshly cut flowers leave Nairobi International Airport each week for the Old Continent, refrigerated in conditions similar to those required to store vaccines.
Those ordered by Africa have to be kept at low temperatures from the production plant to their final delivery, a requirement that is impossible to meet for many countries on the continent that lack infrastructure.
"These are the conditions under which we transport our fresh flowers, so it's very common and usual for our temperature control mechanisms," Peter Musola, general manager of cargo transport at Kenya Airways, told AFP. "The expertise that this market implies in terms of cold chain compliance is unparalleled".
Transporting vaccines to Africa and its 1.3 billion inhabitants is a crucial issue. The company is therefore preparing with new routes, the transformation of passenger aircraft into cargo planes and the opening of a storage warehouse dedicated to vaccines.
The power of flowers
Kenya Airways - in which the Kenyan State has a little less than half of the shares (48.9%) - is competing for this new market with its East African neighbour, the 100% state-owned Ethiopian Airlines.
Africa's biggest airline, the Ethiopian competitor carried its first shipment of vaccines against covid at the beginning of February. Coming from China and destined for Chad, the cargo allowed it to show its ambitions on the continent and demonstrate its reliability.
Kenya Airways, for its part, hopes to deliver to Kenya the first doses of vaccine ordered by the government and promised for February, but for which no specific date has been set.
But the company also wants to convince abroad and is counting on the reputation of Kenya, one of the world's leading cut flower producers.
Every day, its roses and carnations board planes bound for European capitals such as Amsterdam. To keep their petals bright, the flowers need to be refrigerated at between two and eight degrees throughout the journey.
While African governments have already written off Pfizer and Moderna's Covid vaccines, which have to be transported at extreme temperatures and require super freezers that are difficult to obtain, they are turning to vaccines produced by Sinopharm, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson, which also need to be kept between two and eight degrees.
A "decisive advantage for Kenya", according to Mr Musola. "Expertise in the transport of fresh produce is a real added value when it comes to temperature control for vaccines."
In financial difficulty, Kenya Airways is betting on the transport of vaccines to diversify.
Its freight transport activity grew slightly in 2020, but passenger transport, which remains its core business, collapsed with the drop in international flights caused by the pandemic.
The company shed hundreds of jobs last year and the government, its main shareholder, gave it $91 million to help it bear its losses, the country's business press reported this week.
To meet its new ambitions, the company has just converted a Boeing 787, initially assigned to passenger transport, into a cargo plane. A second aircraft should follow.
In the coming months, punctuated by Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, it hopes that its long-haul aircraft full of flowers for Europe will be able to return loaded with vaccines, according to Mr Musola.
Since September, she has had a warehouse dedicated to low-temperature storage, which can hold 300 tonnes of vaccine every six hours. The building includes a special freezer capable of storing the Moderna vaccine, which requires negative temperatures.
Beyond the pandemic, Kenya Airways hopes to recoup its investment by continuing to transport other pharmaceutical products to Africa.
"We are convinced that even after Covid, there will be something else," Musola concludes. "So we want to position ourselves as a sustainable solution for the industry."