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“Shipowners see benefits of docking directly at fruit terminal”
The 3.6-kilometre long quay of BNFW in Antwerp, Belgium, is busy. A large deep-sea container boat is mostly hidden from view due to the containers on the quay. Only a few dozen metres from the quay, a goods train goes by over a level crossing, destination: Switzerland. Shipment: bananas. “We manage our own trimodal, even four-modal, network here (lorry, sea-going vessel, barge, rail),” says Johan Claes, General Director Fruit and Food for SEA-Invest.
Several companies in Antwerp. Zeebrugge, Hamburg, Rotterdam and South Africa fall under SEA-Invest Fruit and Food, including the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge Belfruco and Belgian New Fruit Wharf (BNFW). Belfruco focuses on customs clearance and handling of administrative matters and transport. BNFW is responsible for the actual handling of the cargo (unloading, loading, storing, packing, quality inspections). On the quays of the Albertdok, Leopolddok and Hansdok, about 1.2 million pallets are processed annually. Of that, the majority is shipped in containers. “We have three deep-sea container lines and two conventional reefer boats that dock here directly every week. On top of that, a dozen barges come by daily and 400 to 500 lorries stop here every day,” Johan exemplifies the size of the company. Besides, every week two ‘banana trains’ leave for Switzerland. The loading platform of the train is in the warehouse, so that the weather circumstances have no influence on the product.
Although the railroads have been in the port for decades, the train for fruit and vegetables remains a less attractive method of transport. “A lorry brings the products from A to B, a train always brings the products from A to a transfer point. The final kilometre is always the most expensive in transport, so the transport from the transfer point to B is decisive,” Johan explains. Road transport is still cheaper because of this. The stories about the traffic jam troubles around Antwerp are exaggerated according to Johan. BNFW is on the north-side of the port, at a stone’s throw from the approach road to the A12 and the E19. Because of that, the company has a quick connection to Rotterdam and Germany. The core of the traffic jams are around the centre of Antwerp, further to the south. “Geographically speaking, we’re located very well here, we hardly ever have to get on the actual ring road,” Johan says.
Besides the cooling and repacking facilities, BNFW also has 1,200 plugs for reefer containers. The port company moves with the market because of that. “We’ve seen a dramatic shift. Reefer containers are growing very quickly,” Johan says. “No conventional reefers are built anymore nowadays, and plans are limited. I think these boats will only be used for niches such as the route to St Petersburg.” Johan expects that in five years, reefer containers will have mostly pushed conventional reefers from the market.
Fruit terminal or container terminal
You could assume that the necessity of a port-fruit-terminal would decline because of reefer containers. After all, a reefer container can also be handled by container terminals. “Shipping companies still see the value of unloading at fruit terminals,” Johan continues. “Many customers don’t want a full container of a certain product either, they want a few pallets. Companies have less own stock that way.” Retailers ask for a pallet of various apple varieties, for example, but not a container. The lorries can be loaded with mixed shipments at the fruit terminal.
Johan has also noticed more concentration. While products arrived at multiple locations more often in the past, retailers choose one location more often now. “That’s important for the quality, and it’s easier to work that way than with multiple locations. Within the EU, everything is at a relatively short distance.” The port of first call is an important link in this. At Seatrade’s route from Peru via Zeebrugge to Rotterdam, some Dutch importers have the avocados and other exotics unloaded in Zeebrugge. “These then arrive two days earlier, which means the product is two days fresher, and that is a lot for some products.”
Robots and inspections
“Right from the start we’ve invested in the processing of containers. We have a fully automatic storage of pallets, which increases speed and accuracy.” In recent years, the number of SKUs has grown considerably. For example, while bananas were sorted into three categories in the past, there are dozens of types now. That is partially the result of the rise of, for example, organic and fairtrade bananas and the supermarket name brands. “A robot always grabs the right pallet.”
The containers are opened at BNFW’s closed site. With a permanent customs post and a department of the FAVV (the Belgian Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain) on site, all inspections are conducted within the gates of the company. “Within an hour after the container arrives, the pallets can be on the lorries,” Johan says. “The permanent posts from customs and the FAVV are time saving.” The containers are emptied at the site of the port. Johan explains this is because of the difference between sea containers and the room in lorries. Sea containers have room for 20 pallets, lorries has room for 24. Because lorries can transport 20 per cent more cargo, and doesn’t have to return the empty container, unit prices decrease, according to Johan.
But he also indicates another reason to open the containers. The quality inspections are conducted in Antwerp, a few hours before delivery, and not when the containers are being loaded on the other side of the ocean. New Zealand and Latin America continue to be the most important areas of origin for arrivals at BNFW. A small shift can be seen with the rise of, for example, the Dominican Republic for organic fairtrade bananas, and Surinam, with which a service was started last year.
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