In South Africa fruit and vegetable exports are for the moment continuing as planned, with the expectation that demand for fresh produce in export markets will be supported by the health crisis posed by the coronavirus.
Currently there are 62 cases of patients with the coronavirus in South Africa, no fatalities, and although schools and colleges have closed, it is business as usual, although many people are working from home.
The months of March and April traditionally experience a lull after table grapes and before citrus volumes swell, but apple and pear exports are in full swing.
An apple exporter says there is no direct disruption to apple exports for the moment, but they do anticipate some problems regarding constraints on available containers as shipping lines aim to clear backlogs.
“Apple orders have actually been quite good – as long as the logistics chain can support it.”
“We’re in the middle of our apple harvest and we’re keeping a very close eye on the Chinese harbours. Another major worry would be disruption to harvesting and packing. We have introduced preventive measures at our harvesting and packing facilities, but we do expect greater absenteeism as people have to make alternative childcare arrangements with the schools closing.”
Exporters of early citrus report good demand for the citrus category as a whole – when product is able to reach its end destination. They’re not seeing a significant increase in prices at the moment.
Vegetables with a long shelf life sell out
There have been reports of panic buying, not only of dry groceries, but of fresh produce as well. At one retail chain Monday’s fresh produce sales were 90% higher than the corresponding day a year ago. “It’s chaos, much of the potatoes sold out, also butternuts, gem squash, onions, sweet potatoes – vegetables that have longer shelf life.”
On frozen vegetables the pressure is even higher, he says, and buyers are working hard to refill supply lines.
On a positive note, the unusual consumer demand during the middle of the month is very good news for the potato farmers from the western Free State who are entering the market at the moment.
Electronic integration becomes a sine qua non
In fact, notes Avril de Villiers, commercial director at LCL Logistics, a company’s electronic integration and database accessibility which allow off-site continuation of work, will now prove invaluable to riding out the crisis. “You have to give your employees the tools to work from any place in the world. That enables us to continue our activities and actually, yesterday we activated a policy we had already introduced, that critical staff must work from home. We try to keep as many people out of the office as possible and staff work in shifts.”
“It is the uncertainty that poses the biggest challenge at the moment. There are a great number of uncertain factors like labour, packing facilities, whether infrastructure will remain available.”
As an example, he points to this morning’s announcement that the multi-purpose terminal at Cape Town Harbour is closed for the day.
A shipping agent confirms that all documentation can be done electronically, to reduce the need for paper documentation being physically delivered. “We give the client authorisation to print out the sea waybill, while we keep the original. On the other side a telex release is issued, and no paperwork is required in the process. There is a big push in the shipping industry to get things done electronically.”
The biggest constraint they are feeling at the moment is on equipment, specifically the availability of containers.
Citrus hopes for swift clearing of backlogs
In his weekly newsletter the CEO of the Citrus Growers’ Association Justin Chadwick writes: "Those exporting fresh produce at the moment are feeling the effects of delays in ports around the world – but most significantly in China (Xinyang and Shanghai reported to be the worst with congestion surcharges being introduced). Apart from the additional storage, surcharges and other costs – the delays impact on shelf life of the cargo. Even with innovative plans by the Chinese government (dropping fuel price, opening tolls to allow traffic to travel freely, doing away with interprovincial red tape), it will take some time for the backlog to clear.”
He adds: “The Southern Hemisphere citrus industries are hoping this will happen before their product begins to move.”
The South African fruit industry is perhaps better positioned to weather the storm than other industries, said a number of those to whom FreshPlaza spoke, due to its habituation to a constantly changing and often uncertain operating environment.
“We remain positive, but we are operating in crisis mode with multiple backup plans should the need arise. The South African fruit industry is used to crisis management and making alternative plans,” Avril de Villiers concludes.