Covid-19: Harbour chaos as international lockdowns disrupt export industry

Severe container shortages, delayed vessels and constrained storage facilities were just some of the many issues that have been a thorn in the side of the export industry earlier this year. Photo: Supplied

Severe container shortages, delayed vessels and constrained storage facilities were just some of the many issues that have been a thorn in the side of the export industry earlier this year. Photo: Supplied

Container shortages, space constraints and long truck queues are just some of the many issues that currently plague South African harbours. Vessel delays and disruptions have become a logistical nightmare for producers who race against time to export fresh produce.  

Travel restrictions as part of the national covid-19 lockdown continue to wreak havoc on the agricultural export industry. With ports operating at just 60%, international traders of goods are feeling the pinch  

The challenge of limited sea port capacity has resulted in the delayed shipping of cargo, unorganized logistics, and the loss of shelf space for many exporters.  

Clearing and forwarding agent Mentfield SA CEO, Elzanne van Lill, says there has been a severe shortage of containers. Mentfield SA, utilizes air, sea and road travel to deliver goods throughout the globe. 

Elzanne Van Lill, CEO of Mentfield SA.

Van Lill says that the peak export season is in full swingIt has been difficult for export logistics to meet the expectations of producers. 

Shipping lines have begun transporting empty containers back to South Africa to mitigate the effects of the container shortage. The shortage is caused by the disruption of international trade and the tightening of South African imports 

“You have to operate lean and nimble during a time like this – we have to be innovative and act quickly to utilize opportunities. The slowing down of productivity at all ports and the empty container depots are causing huge frustration.”   

“Trucks are standing in long queues of up to 40 trucks at a time at both empty container depots and ports. Movement is slow,” Van Lill says 

The container shortage, combined with space constraints on vessels, have caused delays in the international transportation of goods. 

Fruit exports in uncharted waters 

Deciduous fruit growers association Hortgro says the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic have put fruit farmers in the industry in uncharted territory.    

Jacques Du Preez is Hortgro’s general manager for trade and markets. Hsays the limited capacity of ports has caused disarray amongst fruit producersFarmers doubt the efficiency of harbour ports to cope with the export demand, he says.     

Du Preez adds that the global health crisis as come as a serious jolt to the dynamics between export and production  

Jacques Du Preez is Hortgro’s general manager for trade and markets.

“Ports aren’t operating at full capacity, it’s a big challenge to get the fruit out of the country. The efficiency in the ports, the availability of containers and vessels, and delays have been a challenge. Apples and pears have just been harvested and will be exported until January next year.   

READ MORE: Travel restrictions R60 bil worth of citrus exports at risk   

Government is expected to give clarification on the easing of travel restrictions this week. With the shutdown of airlinesit is up to ports to carry the brunt of the export industry.  

Duncan Masiwa reports that the limited capacity of ports has had a devastating impact on the red meat industry.  

Chairman of the Sernick Group, Nick Serfontein, says things are looking bleak for red meat producers who are reliant on exports. He does not believe it will get better under level three of the lockdown 

Serfontein says meat exports are currently not running, due to the container shortage. He doesn’t foresee this situation improving anytime soon, despite the lockdown easing to level three.  

Restrictions on travel inside the country have also been very disruptive. Du Preez says that producers on the entire agricultural spectrum have found it increasingly difficult to operate with the limitations on movement. He says that the pinch of travel restrictions has been felt globally.   

“It’s a unique situation, it’s not the old normal anymore. Logistics all over the world are facing a similar challenge. So it’s not just us, the global movement of vessels is restricted.”  

Cattle farmer Nick Serfontein, the chairperson of the Sernick Group.

Effects at farming level…    

Not only has the pressure on ports had a devasting impact at the points where produce leaves the country. It has also had an effect at farm level.   

DPreez says the biggest concern for the fruit industry is the workforce. Rural communities like Ceres and Grabouw in the Western Cape are built on the fruit industry. Travel restrictions have not only limited the movements of vessels, but also the movement of farm workers and labourershe says.   

Agriculture is labour intensive. Labourers travel from far and wide to earn wages on farms.     

People are going hungry, and not managing to earn their normal wages. That is a big challenge.”