Port delays hurt farmers

2013-09-09 00:00

CONGESTION and delays at Durban’s port may have broken the back of some of the country’s citrus farmers.

The port’s growing inability to deal with the increasing truck volumes has had a “catastrophic impact” on South Africa’s citrus industry over the past few months.

The irony is that farmers had a bumper crop this year, but the benefits could not be realised because of the bottleneck at Durban’s port.

“It has been a really tough year for us because of the port, one of the worst years the industry has ever seen,” said Mitchell Brooke, Citrus Growers Association logistics development manager.

The 2013 season is drawing to a close.

Brooke said the citrus industry would meet port stakeholders later this month to work on a plan of action to prevent a repeat of the mistakes.

Some strategies may include putting more fruit on rail, and railing more product to Cape Town and Maputo harbours where there was spare capacity, he said. Logistics can account for up to 60% of a farmers’ production costs.

Road Freight Association technical director Gavin Kelly said congestion at the port had remained at “unacceptable levels for a number of years”, with operations “running smoothly sometimes, but sometimes it’s bad”.

Kelly said the problem would not be solved by making additional capacity available if the workforce was inefficient.

Absa agriculture analyst Ernst Javroski said the delays affected not only the citrus and fruit industries, but every­thing that moved through the port, and it definitely had a wider economic impact. The weak rail system was partly to blame, he said.

Carisbrooke Valley Citrus, pack house for citrus growers in the Ixopo/Umzimkhulu area and the Midlands’ major citrus exporter, said congestion had cost them “about 10% extra over four to six weeks in July and August” due to additional surcharges levied by transport companies.

The surcharges were levied because truckers were being held up at the port for days at a time. “For two to three weeks it was hectically bad,” said Carisbrooke GM Craig Archibald.

He said there was a possibility of losses due to decay resulting from the delays.

Carisbrooke had to this year contract transport companies other than the two they usually use, to get the fruit to port because of delays.

Brooke said they had warned port authorities early in the year that it was going to be a tough season. “Unfortunately it all came together in a perfect storm,” said Brooke. Losses amounted to “the upper end of millions of rands”, he added.

Factors that caused congestion were a bumper crop of citrus fruit from KZN, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. There were, however, not enough cold storage facilities.

This resulted in some trucking companies refusing to load, because drivers and vehicles were having to wait days to unload, said Brooke.

This was compounded by a limited number of electricity plug-in points for reefer containers.

Citrus growers had warned Transnet earlier in the year that at least 2 000 plug-in points were required, but there were only 1 200 in place.

There was also a high number of windy days that made loading impossible on many days, and which meant ships also had to wait longer outside the port.

Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry port committee chairman Dave Watts said while efficiency may have improved slightly for ships in the port recently, there remained “intermittent” problems of congestion for “the truckers”, a problem he expected would persist for some time to come.

Transnet responds:

Zeph Ndlovu, GM: Operations KZN, Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) responds to our questions:

Not enough plug-in points at Durban Container Terminal?

TPT response: Durban Container Terminal: Pier 2 has … 1 267 plug points. Since the beginning of the reefer season in May, the terminal has maintained an average 90% occupancy. The industry norm is 70%.

Pier 2 is building new reefer stacks, which will add nearly 50% capacity by next year, and ensure the terminal realises 1 842 reefer points.

This will alleviate the capacity challenge, even taking into account normal year-to-year growth.

Not enough cold storage facilities?

TPT response: These services are provided by private entities.

Many wind-bound delays in the past few months?

TPT response: Average wind delays since the start of the reefer season was 95 crane hours per week. This indicates a concerning increase from the previous year when the terminal experienced 84 crane hours per week [delays].

Wind delays constrain the terminal’s overall stack capacity and fluidity.

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