Port Elizabeth Harbour helps citrus industry break export record

Port of Port Elizabeth business manager Sujit Bhagattjee
FLEXIBLE APPROACH: Port of Port Elizabeth business manager Sujit Bhagattjee
Image: SUPPLIED

The Port Elizabeth Harbour helped SA’s citrus industry export record volumes of fruit this year, compensating for Transnet’s coronavirus-related problems in the Port of Cape Town.

As the 2020 export season draws to a close, the ports authority says it has exported about 460,000 pallets of citrus from the ports of Port Elizabeth and Ngqura.

The figure is a huge upswing from 2019 when, due to technical, labour, process and weather problems, no citrus was exported out of the PE port’s break bulk terminal and a much-reduced volume left Algoa Bay via the Ngqura container terminal.

These problems severely affected SA’s citrus export industry, which is worth R19bn annually.

Transnet National Ports Authority spokesperson Zinhle Small said the breakthrough had come just at the right time.

“In the midst of a record citrus export season, Nelson Mandela Bay ports have successfully complemented the Port of Cape Town, which was negatively affected by Covid-19.

“Apart from handling fruit at the Port of PE’s break-bulk facilities, it is estimated that the container terminals at the two Eastern Cape ports will handle more than 460,000 pallets by the end of the fruit season.”

Small said the high coronavirus infection rate in Cape Town had resulted in workforce shortages and the port had struggled to meet shipping demands.

The pandemic offered the Algoa Bay harbours the opportunity to step in and hard work and smart strategising had helped them to meet the challenge.

Port of Port Elizabeth’s  new business development manager, Sujit Bhagattjee had, together with the port authority’s marine operations department and the harbour master, spearheaded a request from shipping lines for fruit to be handled at the Port Elizabeth  harbour multipurpose terminal.

The Perishable Products Exports Control Board approved the request and the flexible approach at Port Elizabeth and Ngqura ensured more vessels were accommodated, Small said.

Bhagattjee said the Port of Port Elizabeth  had also seen the resurgence of palletised fruit, mainly at the multipurpose terminal, due to a worldwide shortage of reefer containers — used to carry perishable goods that require controlled temperatures — and some of the receiving ports using older technology.

“During the Covid pandemic and the citrus export season, the Port Elizabeth container terminal has once again proven its strategic importance to the complementary SA container terminal system in supporting the economy.”

Port of Port Elizabeth marine operatons manager Ophelia Shabane
BIG TURNAROUND: Port of Port Elizabeth marine operatons manager Ophelia Shabane
Image: SUPPLIED

Because of the reefer container shortage, shipping lines had to reschedule and redirect cargo.

Bhagattjee said compliance with Covid-19 regulations had formed the basis for the success at the Port of Port Elizabeth.

“We introduced standard operating procedures, granting clearance on a per shipment basis.

“The Port of Port Elizabeth had to ensure that shipping lines, vessel agents and terminal operators were fully compliant in terms of the Covid protocols.

“This effort has ensured that the Port of PE has not turned away any vessel to date.”

Small said before the problems in 2019, exports out of the PE multipurpose terminal were steady: 2018/2019 — 14,740  tons; 2017/2018 — 7,323 tons; 2016/2017 — 18,277 tons; 2015/2016 — 24,351 tons.

Citrus exports from the Port of Port Elizabeth go mostly to Europe, the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere in Africa.

Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa logistics development manager Mitchell Brook said: “We managed a huge volume and Ngqura and PE worked very well.”

SA is the 10th largest citrus producer and the second largest exporter by volume in the world.

There are about 50 packhouses and 140 commercial citrus farms in the Eastern Cape, employing about 26,000 people.

It is projected that about 142.6-million 15kg cartons of citrus will be packed for export from Southern Africa in 2020 and about 39-million cartons will go out from the Eastern Cape.

The association’s information manager, John Edmonds, said: “There are just drips and drabs left to go this season and we are expecting to pack a record volume of 142.6-million 15kg cartons, which equals 2.1-million tons of citrus.”

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