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Challenges in sea freight

Food Security

Retailers in Europe are showing an increasing preference for sea transport, as Carel van Oosterzee, Programme Manager at PUM, confirms. On behalf of PUM, Carel supports Zimtrade, the national organisation for trade development and promotion in Zimbabwe, in improving the distribution chain. This is because although sea freight guarantees much cheaper – “60% cheaper”, says Carel – and more sustainable – “factor of 50” – transport than air freight, it is not always possible to opt for transit by sea. For instance, the transit time may be too long or the product to be transported may not be strong enough. 

Because of its unique climate, Zimbabwe is able to deliver products at times when other countries cannot. For example, Zimbabwe can deliver mangetout exclusively for about five months in the springtime. Blueberries are available in October and November. And avocados are ripe earlier than in neighbouring South Africa. A great economic starting point, but it became apparent that the distribution chain was getting in the way. 

Transittime reduced

“When we started this project two years ago, the transit time for sea freight to Europe was 32 days,” Carel explains. This has since been reduced to 24 days, and it may still be possible to optimise by a further one or two days. To achieve this, the entire distribution chain has been charted out. For example, at a small company it can take up to 10 days to fill a container with mangetout – too long to then be able to ship a good product. Sea freight was therefore reserved for a few large companies, while the demand from European retailers for the import of more sustainable fruit and vegetables is growing, Carel observes. The programme has selected three medium-sized growers as model farms. They work locally with smaller growers, covering the areas of knowledge and infrastructure. This makes export feasible for small growers as well and a container can be filled within a day and a half.

We also looked at optimising transport to the port. The nearest port is Cape Town, around 2,500 kilometres away. Trucks are used for this. Tracking and tracing is used to monitor the transport and steer it towards the fastest route. Conditioned transport is now used as standard. “In the past, savings were often made on the use of refrigerated trucks.” The central distribution point in Zimbabwe has also been renovated and there are longer-term plans to replace this with a modern cooling facility suitable for all types of transport.  

Fastest departure

Due to waiting times and delays, ships do not always depart according to schedule. This is why it is only just before the products arrive in Cape Town that the shipping company with the first departure is ascertained. “If you put the products in a Maersk container and the ship has just left when you arrive in Cape Town, you might have to wait a week for the next boat. This is why, for instance, we use a grape packing station during the mangetout season, to transfer the products into a container of the shipping company that is leaving the soonest.” 

On the production side, a programme has been drawn up in collaboration with agronomists for the product to be grown to be even stronger and thus extend the storage life. This includes aspects such as selection of seeds and young plants, irrigation, sustainable energy, crop protection, post-harvest treatment and fertilisation. Carel indicates that if the product is stronger, the choice can be made between air or sea freight. “There may be reasons to go by air. For example, at the start of the season when there is high demand and the product is less strong. Once the supply is up and running, there is no problem choosing sea transport.” The expectation is that ultimately 75% will be exported via sea freight and 25% via air freight. 

Increased export

Carel sees exports from Zimbabwe increasing. The demand has increased, and Zimbabwe can now also meet the demand for sea transport. Carel notes that the improvements introduced by PUM also influence demand and the retailer. “It gives the market in Europe an extra choice of where they can purchase their products from. Because the social aspect is also brought into consideration, it’s attractive to European parties to have dealings with these companies.” 

Source: AGF Primeur