Packhouses have contingency plans while harbour terminals are unaffected

South Africa: Electricity cuts a great irritation to fruit industry

Eskom, the national (and sole) electricity provider in South Africa has embarked on a programme of load shedding (planned power outages) as a result of maintenance on the grid. Such power outages are not new, but previously they’ve usually occurred in winter at times of high electricity demand.

It’s unusual for Eskom to cut electricity during summer, and for stonefruit packhouses it couldn’t come at a worse time.

It is expected that these rounds of load shedding – some parts of the Western Cape experiencing two daily cuts of approximately two hours duration each since last week – will have a significant impact on the stonefruit season. Fortunately, the load shedding programme is announced in advance (even if Eskom doesn’t always strictly keep to it, causing annoyance when workers have been told to remain at home and then there’s no power cut) and the duration is only between two to four hours at a stretch.

Since the major power cuts of 2011 and 2007, most packhouses have invested in contingency plans and backup power generators and the impact of load shedding is therefore controlled.

At the harbours the terminals are ensured of backup electricity, supplied by Transnet (the national port and rail company), so that there is no impact from power cuts at the points of loading.

“We’re used to it”
While it is a great irritation, most packhouse managers are regarding it with admirable stoicism. Many packhouses have electricity generators capable of running the packing lines, lights and computers, but not powerful enough to run the compressors of cold rooms. Their only solution is to ensure that the doors of cold rooms remain tightly closed and not to load during this time. To control field temperature, they could bring in fruit very early in the morning or late afternoon.

Some smaller packhouses, especially those for fruit categories only packed for a few months every year, don’t have the capital outlay for electricity generators and there the impact is greatest, as power cuts bring a halt to all activities.

“And even if the power cuts are outside working hours, I have to get up at the middle of the night and check on the cold store to start the compressor again when the power comes back on,” a plum pack store manager says. "If you get two power cuts during a nine hour working day, you lose four to five hours of work a day."

One cold store manager tells FreshPlaza he’s used to power outages by now. “You just have to make sure you have plans in place. It’s not ideal but we work around it.”

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