Cape Town - Load shedding is having a severe financial impact on South African food production, according to an expert at energy efficiency firm Energy Partners.
According to Dawie Kriel, the head of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration at Energy Partners, this affects not only primary food production, but also post-harvest handling and the retail sector.
"The interrupted electricity supply is costing the local food production industry millions every month and could be depriving South Africa of quality nutrition," said Kriel.
His comments follow a plea from the South African Poultry Association earlier this month for government assistance to help them guarantee electricity supply to the nation’s biggest abattoirs as almost-daily load shedding is harming the birds’ welfare and creating health risks.
The slaughterhouses, some of which can process as many as 13 000 chickens hourly, can’t rely on generators as they aren’t able to create sufficient power for their needs, said Kevin Lovell, CEO of the poultry industry body.
Lovell told Bloomberg the birds are typically stunned unconscious by electrocution before they are decapitated while hanging upside down.
When power cuts interrupt the process, the birds “have been stunned but they haven’t been killed; they’re hanging upside down and they’re coming back alive”, he told Bloomberg.
“It’s a real problem. And it’s a huge waste problem because everything that stops in the process, sometimes hundreds of tons, has to be cleared. You have to clean and sterilise everything and then you have to dump at a medical waste site.”
Kriel said on Wednesday that the entire supply chain - from primary production through to the consumer - is impacted in one way or another, because farmers are highly dependent on electricity for key processes such as irrigation, livestock care and harvesting.
"The biggest problem for primary production is the uncertainty around the load shedding schedule. It is very difficult to halt production or manufacturing processes once they are in progress," said Kriel.
"In the dairy industry, for example, a herd of dairy cows and the infrastructure to support milk production run predictably every day according to the animals' biorhythms. It is not something that can be switched on and off at a moment’s notice."
This was the same problem for the poultry industry. Lovell said while load shedding followed schedules, it was sometimes imposed at a few minutes’ notice.
Kriel said once fresh milk is in a silo it has to be treated, cooled and transported to a dairy plant for careful processing to ensure that quality and safety are maintained.
"Once in the factory, it needs to be kept at the perfect temperature and then processed through a series of heating and cooling stages to provide the milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter and many other products used daily," said Kriel.
The cooling plant is a crucial element and a big energy user in the production process. It needs to run 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
"While solar and wind energy can assist, it is not ideal for this type of load and has to be integrated with a form of standby power generation."
Kriel pointed out that reliable energy is of equal importance in the post-harvest sector, as the long-term quality and safety of food products depends on accurate temperature management throughout the process.
"If this process is interrupted at any stage, the food product deteriorates in quality and cannot be sold as premium grade or worse, has to be discarded due to food safety concerns. This means food producers are losing valuable income and the country is deprived of quality nutrition," said Kriel.
Cold chain disruption affects retail sector
Power interruptions also have an impact on the safe handling and storage of perishable foods in the retail sector.
"If the cold chain is disrupted, shelf life is affected and shop owners either have to remove affected products from their shelves or face unhappy customers who return inedible products," he said.
"Lights, refrigeration, ovens and all other energy intensive elements must be as energy efficient as possible and energy usage must be monitored closely. Once this has been implemented, store owners can invest in standby generation and solar power, especially if they trade mostly during daylight hours," said Kriel.