A leading South African food distributor says urgent intervention is needed at Gqeberha’s port facilities. This, as a critical lack of cold storage space in the wake of the Durban floods are aggravating supply chain disruptions with potentially far-reaching consequences for the local economy
Hume International, a major import-export business, has come forward saying that, in addition to the destruction of vital road, power and water infrastructure, damage to commercial cold stores in KwaZulu-Natal has placed serious pressure on Gqeberha’s port facilities.
If not urgently addressed, says the food distributor which imported over 180 million kilograms of food products last year, shortages in some foods may be seen in the country, as well as the disrupted movement of food and other goods.
They are calling on government to issue an emergency concession for Gqeberha and to lift some of the red tape applicable to the port.
Far-reaching consequences for local economy
Managing director Frederick Hume explains that a number of container ships were forced to bypass Durban during the April floods, and to divert to Gqeberha instead.
Additionally, remaining Durban cold stores had already begun to build up stock in anticipation of the upcoming citrus season, leaving many without any spare capacity to absorb the overflow of goods.
“Importers are therefore being forced to turn to Gqeberha, but the number of import cold storage facilities in the area which have been approved by the [department of agriculture] are very limited,” said Hume.
Because of regulatory restrictions on food and meat imports, those who pursue this option are then aced with severe constraints in terms of the number of containers that may be unpacked each day.
“This has left many importers unable to draw cargo from the port and is causing significant congestion, which in turn risks deepening food supply chain disruptions with potentially far-reaching consequences for the local economy.”
Hume is calling on government to grant an emergency concession for businesses to unpack a larger number of containers at the port. “This would ease some of the delays and remove pressure on commercial cold storage facilities by enabling goods to be distributed more quickly.”
Issuing of procedural notices too slow
According to the company, government intervention would provide an immediate solution to difficulties regarding the application of Veterinary Procedural Notices (VPNs) at Gqberha which are responsible for limiting the number of unpacks.
Roy Thomas, operations director at Hume International, explains that a veterinary inspector must be present whenever the seal on a container of imported goods is broken to verify that the contents match the packing list. They also draw samples for microbiological testing.
“But Gqeberha’s secondary port status means that there is significantly less capacity and fewer inspectors available to perform the duty,” says Thomas.
Furthermore, cold store staff at Durban and Cape Town were able to break container seals without inspectors present as long as they kept a register and were able to present samples for testing once the vet arrived. “The application of VPN laws seems inconsistent, and we hope that government will urgently consider our request for a concession,” Thomas says.
It has worked in the past
Hume argues that a similar arrangement in the past has proven valuable. In the aftermath of last year’s riots, during which two cold stores in Durban were burnt down and a third damaged, government granted Hume International a special concession to utilise the Gqeberha port for containers originally destined for Durban.
To manage this extra workload, the then department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (DAFF) approved an inspector or assignee to its facilities for 24 hours a day to comply with VPN requirements. Hume International footed the bill for the additional, private service but assignees reported directly to the local DAFF office.
“Before the concession, we were only able to unpack seven containers a day in Gqeberha or 35 containers a week. After the concession was granted, we immediately [doubled] this volume, moving to a double-shift unpacking system and hiring additional staff to help manage the workload.”
The Durban concession has, however, expired in October 2021 but Hume says a re-instatement will offer an apt solution at at no extra cost to the department. “We are hoping that government will consider making the arrangement permanent,” says Thomas.
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