The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the international balance of trade, the extraordinarily large table grape, stone fruit and top fruit harvests, and the persistent Southeast summer wind in Cape Town have combined to create a massive challenge for the South African deciduous fruit sector, namely a serious shortage of refrigerated containers for exporting this fruit.
As this crisis forms part of a global problem, there is no immediate solution. However, a South African fruit industry task force is working in close co-operation with the Government Transport authorities, the Port of Cape Town Container Terminal and the relevant shipping lines in order to find solutions to this complex and costly problem. While these initiatives are making some progress, this problem is likely to continue for some time, and while the problem is currently centred around the Port of Cape Town, this is expected to affect all South African ports in the weeks ahead.
The global shortage of containers has developed because of the economic bounce back by China after the Covid-19 outbreak in the second half of 2020. This recovery happened at a time when the industry was still considerably reduced in the USA and Europe. During this period, China shipped large volumes of containerised freight to these regions without the containers being returned in the usual balance of trade. A far higher proportion of containers are therefore stuck in the West, while there is a considerable shortage of containers in China.
“There are enough reefer containers in the world but they’re not doing the rounds. It’s a global problem and it’s out of our hands,” says Jacques du Preez, Hortgro’s general manager of trade and markets. Du Preez explained that shippers were currently finding a bit easier to source containers for shipment to Europe than to the Eastern markets. “It is still possible to get containers shipped to Europe, but to the East it’s currently extremely difficult as reefer containers are even being used to carry more lucrative dry goods between China and the USA and Europe,” he says.
Local problems further add to this crisis. Productivity at the Cape Town Container Terminal is an ongoing problem, and high wind speeds during summer often cause delays to the vessel loading process. During early March, the wind has caused loading delays of around a week or more. Due to this challenge, container vessels, especially those on the Eastern route, have started skipping Cape Town harbour as they are not prepared to wait outside the harbour for the extra days of delay. When these vessels sail past Cape Town, rounding the tip of Africa and heading for the Far East, not only do they skip the much-needed loading of highly perishable fruit, they also do not offload the desperately needed refrigerated containers.
As a result of vessels sailing past Cape Town to dock at Port Elizabeth of Coega, 800km to the east, many of the containers are being sourced here. In addition, shippers are now trucking fruit from the Western Cape to Port Elizabeth and Durban, on the Indian Ocean, to get apples, pears and the last stone fruit to the Middle East and the Far East. Available space on vessels to the East is also currently severely limited.
Cold storage facilities for stone fruit and table grapes are limited and are all close to capacity. These fruit kinds are usually packed and shipped as soon as possible, unlike apples and pears meant for storage. However, due to the large crops this season, even apple and pear cold stores are also full.
Du Preez explained that any disruption in the chain has a resulting effect back to the orchard. He concluded that at present growers and shippers were still managing to keep the logistics chain moving. The stone fruit and table grape seasons are nearing their end and the escalating top fruit and citrus harvests will need to find solutions for this challenge in the weeks ahead.