Citrus industry shows great resolve in season of chaos

Mzansi’s citrus growers can’t seem to catch a break. From vessel delays to container shortages, a problematic Cape Town port, looting, arson and Transnet's cyber attacks, this year's citrus season threw some heavy punches. These were the lessons learned

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South Africa’s citrus season was a rollercoaster ride of good, bad and ugly events. But amid the “somewhat chaotic and extremely difficult” circumstances, the industry kept a cool head and revealed a collective spirit of getting the job done. Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) CEO Justin Chadwick says there are many lessons to learn from 2021.

At the start of the year, the industry was optimistic that it would see a better year than the one before for its growers and export markets. It wasn’t to be.

The calendar was marred by a slew of challenges. Apart from Covid-19 with all its constraints, significant vessel delays, a shortage of containers, congestion and poor productivity at the Cape Town port became a problematic reality.

Justin Chadwick, CEO of the Citrus Growers Association and chairperson of Fruit SA’s board. Photo: CGA
Justin Chadwick, CEO of the Citrus Growers’ Association and chairperson of Fruit SA’s board. Photo: Supplied/CGA

Concerns were flagged that the local industry might not meet its export demands.

The industry found itself scrambling to secure sufficient mobile refrigerated shipping containers in order to meet this year’s crop export commitments after the Variety Focus Group had estimated that 95 000 containers would be needed to export Mzansi’s harvests.

The rest of the year offered some good news with new market access agreements that saw South Africa securing and increasing citrus exports to Indonesia, the Philippines and China.

ALSO READ: Container shortage threatens SA’s bumper fruit harvest

Another sudden setback

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The respite was short-lived, however. A wave of looting and arson swept across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July, impacting the citrus value chain. In the same month Transnet, which controls ports and railway transport systems, was hit by cyber attacks, which led to a blocking of operations at its cold stores and freights.

This caused a backlog of fruit across the citrus supply chain and temporary delays in fruit being exported to key markets.

Many lessons to learn

Chadwick says that after all of this, a number of lessons can be learnt from the somewhat chaotic citrus season.

“The number one lesson [is] that no matter how much you plan, you cannot plan for everything. The insurrection and cyber attacks were definitely something nobody would have expected or planned for.

“As a result, logistics have been a nightmare and the tail end of the season has been extremely difficult in terms of getting fruit to the ports and out of the country.”

Another lesson Chadwick highlights is that networks and communication are essential.

“As an industry we faced the challenges as a team with all other logistics role players. Cool heads were called for and there was a spirit of getting the job done. Everybody understood that everybody was under pressure.”

Addressing bottlenecks together

Alleviating bottlenecks and clearing backlogs was a job all role players in the industry stepped in to do.

Chadwick says that the citrus industry is united and faces challenges as a group, which was also noted during the 2021 season.

“As congestion increased in the Durban port, growers from the north voluntarily stopped harvesting and packing to allow the congestion to ease.”

In addition, technology allowed for quick responses and excellent communication. Without virtual meeting platforms the job would have been very difficult, Chadwick admits.

Not all problems solved

But the season is not over yet and the container shipping scenario from South Africa has become quite constrained. Global and local dynamics are creating a complex situation, says CGA logistics development manager Mitchell Brooke.

Citrus industry had chaotic 2021 season
Mitchell Brooke, logistics development manager at the Citrus Growers’ Association. Photo: LinkedIn

The massive demand for sea freight from east to west, coupled with massive freight rates, see container and vessel allocations focusing on those routes.

“Vessel delays and congestion are very evident due to the volume flow, coupled with the recent closure of ports and terminals in China due to Covid. This is tying up much-needed container equipment. This trend has been at play since late 2020 and has caused all sorts of problems in routing empty containers to South Africa.”

The already problematic routing of empty containers to Mzansi was further impacted by local port delays and the bypassing of vessels that had been earmarked for bringing empty containers to the country.

“We have learnt that reefer equipment [cooling containers] is planned across all lines and aligned for the balance of the citrus season. We can surmise, however, that reefer equipment can become constrained based on the above factors.”

Brooke says they received assurance that local shipping lines are not taking a back seat and that hard work is done to ensure equipment is available at each port.

ALSO READ: Insurrection: Citrus industry starts picking up the pieces

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