Citrus companies are setting an example with their increased return to conventional shipping this season, in large degree to compensate for the delays and inefficiencies at the Cape Town Container Terminal.
"Year to date, we are already loading the sixteenth vessel destined for Europe and Russia, which is on average about three to four vessels more than what we got used to over the last couple of citrus seasons," says Charles Gantz, managing director at Anlin Shipping, South African representative of the Reefer Alliance (comprising Baltic Shipping and Seatrade). "We have also YTD experienced an increase of vessels loading to the US East Coast from Cape Town, comparing to the 2019 season."
FPT's Cape Town terminal where conventional vessels for Europe, Russia and the USA are loaded (photos supplied by Anlin Shipping)
“Since we started in April – we started much earlier this year – citrus exporters have seen that with using conventional shipping their volumes are moving. Our vessels are loaded at privately-run port terminals, where there is better staff management and there have been fewer issues with Covid-19. For sure, we have improved on our overall schedule integrity.”
Their conventional vessels are loaded at Bidfreight Port Operations in Port Elizabeth and at FPT in Cape Town and Durban.
Their service is quick, he points out, because there's no stopping at other harbours; particularly suited to exporters servicing supermarket programmes.
They’ve seen a 10 to 15% increase in new clients this season.
Weekly US-bound vessel carrying citrus this year
“It is a strong harvest, better than last year, and there are higher volumes. Where usually there would be a vessel to the United States every ten to fourteen days, this year we’ve been blessed by a weekly sailing up till week 30. We’ve also shipped more grapefruit from the Northern Cape to the US this year. With our weekly Cape Town calls, it still gave those customers who did not divert any fruit ex Cape Town to Port Elizabeth a workable and efficient export platform."
Their Europe/Russia vessels take between 100 and 120 containers above deck and four to five thousand pallets below-deck, capable of carrying 7,000 to 8,000 pallets on a vessel in total.
A conventional vessel being loaded with containers above deck and pallets in the hold
Brisk lemon movement
European volumes have risen strongly. “If you look at the amount of South African citrus shipped to Europe every week, the rate at which it moves is actually incredible. Usually by this time we’d start getting reports that overseas coldstores are filling up, but not this year. We are by no means experts on marketing and sales, but from what we are hearing, there’s still space for South African product and sales are good.”
And remember, he adds, container problems aren’t only on the South African side. On the receiver’s end containers are moving slower than usual – and at the best of times containers take longer to be processed than product that arrive in pallets.
He expects that the last Seatrade vessel for the USA will depart mid-September, while the last Reefer Alliance vessel will take citrus to the EU by weeks 38 or 39 and to Russia, depending on the market, a week or two later.
Do the grape & stonefruit sectors have a plan B in case of running into the Covid-19 peak?
“The secret is now to maintain the momentum. South Africa still has to reach its Covid-19 peak and no-one knows when that is going to be. If you look at the disruption it caused at the Cape Town Container Terminal, I fear that it is the grape and stonefruit sectors that could be severely affected a few months from now. The citrus industry has set a strong example on how to cope with Covid disruptions. Are the grape and stonefruit guys working on a plan B?”
He’d welcome engagement with them, he says, on how to put their eggs in different baskets to spread the risk of what the Covid-19 peak could mean to port operations.