“To me it’s a no-brainer. If you can put the fruit into a 40ft reefer box that’s as close as possible to the tree, then you stand a much better chance of controlling the atmosphere inside and controlling the cold chain,” says Andy Connell.
Fitting with this philosophy, the South African fruit industry veteran has been sending fruit by rail from the country’s interior to its ports since 1998.
At first this practice was “upsetting the old school”, but after joining Dole South Africa in 2007 he was able to convince the multinational to start up a rail-shipped fruit programme of its own.
“Dole has been leading the rail development in South Africa for the last seven years. They are totally committed and doing a very good job,” says Connell.
“In 2014, my last year of direct involvement, we shipped over 600 containers in rail and of those 412 went direct from the packhouse through to the receiver’s distribution centre.
“I believe our shelf life has been improved because we enter the cold chain so swiftly and contain that cold chain right up until the last mile.”
With such a significant player involved the transport method is no longer so controversial, but Connell says it’s far from being widespread. Since leaving the multinational, part of his job as a consultant has been to “give rail a bit more of the respect it deserves”.
“Fruit South Africa (Fruit SA) embarked on the RTWG (Rail Transport Working Group) and in April we started on a three-month project where Fruit South Africa contracted me to work with [rail provider] Transnet on a rail strategy,” he says.
That project ended in late June, and since then Fruit SA has engaged Connell to continue working with stakeholders to drive momentum for the initiative. The Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa (CGA) has also contracted him to boost rail transport usage with an emphasis on the Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Zimbabwe citrus-producing regions.
“The citrus growers’ real interest in this is that with the volume increasing between now and 2020, there is no way that road haul current structures will handle that volume of fruit. One needs to look at alternatives to road, one needs to turn to rail,” he says.
“For years I’d felt pretty alone in this but there’s definitely a groundswell starting where the rail is starting to gain better respect, and I certainly have seen a significant improvement in working relations with Transnet on this – we’ve been able to have a lot more productive discussions.”
Findings and developments
Through his work with Transnet and others, Connell found infrastructure was one of the most limiting factors for rail uptake in the fruit sector. But there were some easy fixes that could be made to increase uptake from Johannesburg to the main ports of Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.
“The process has identified certain hub points that would smooth out and facilitate a much smoother flow of empty containers,” he says.
To export by train you need containers to do it, but the problem until recently has been an inherent disincentive for importers to carry goods through to the final destination.
“All imports get de-vanned in the port they arrive in, and the only reason for that is the shipping line charges a surcharge on that equipment because they have to position it back to the port empty because they have no use.
“That has scared the importers away. Now what we’re encouraging the shipping lines to do is drop that surcharge and allow organic flow of those import containers into Johannesburg, not to stop at the port, and we can re-use them for fruit export. That’s going to happen, that’s moving ahead,” he says.
Connell clarifies the surcharge has been dropped provided it’s the fruit season and the shipping line has confidence the container will pick up a load out of Johannesburg.
“In the last two weeks we have brought another two growers over to rail who were previously saying “no”, and I think this is a trend that will continue as rail gains more respect,” he says.
Johannesburg as a hub point is the most immediate solution to boost rail transport in the fruit industry, but the end goal is to activate more usage in regions to the city’s east and north. To do that will require improvements to station facilities.
“As an example, at one of the rail heads in Tzaneen we’ve got only 48 plug points, so they’ve been running one to two trains a week which has been fine,” Connell says.
“But if you wanted to run three or four trains, 48 plus is hopelessly too short,” he says, adding the power supply was also limited to the voltage necessary for that amount.
“In the other rail terminals they can only power 70 containers at any one time, so you cannot cycle any more than one or two trains in a week.”
And to boot there are also capacity constraints at the ports themselves.
“Durban Port can only handle 11 trains a day, and your fruit is coming down together with all types of cargo and other trains as well,” he says.
“What we’re going to have to do in South Africa is increase the capacity in the port and increase the capacity at these terminals.”
These challenges are not insurmountable though, and Connell believes the relative continuity of different fruit-growing seasons will mean the process can effectively switch between crops and run smoothly.
“As the citrus season ends, the grape season starts in the same areas in the north in Limpopo, so we should be able to switch,” he says.
“We believe the market demand is there for continuance into other products, into grapes and into apples and pears.”
And what about avocados?
“The avos are currently all going down in a refrigerated truck – the rate the avocado growers are paying is only possible because that truck returns with apples coming out of controlled atmosphere going up to Johannesburg,” he says.
“Johannesburg consumes in excess of 30 truckloads a day…I’ve had discussions on behalf of the CGA with the shipping lines who are very keen to use their containers cabotage.
“This is something that has to be a really carefully orchestrated approach where you cabotage the apples in a container up to Johannesburg, you re-route that empty container and prepare it for avos.”
Zooming in on Zimbabwe
New developments in rail container shipping have come at just the right time for growers in southern Zimbabwe, who also form part of the CGA.
Connell explains that as of this year South Africa has had to give importers a re-export phytosanitary certificate for Zimbabwean fruit, while the Zimbabwean Government is now also requesting non-manipulation certificates from South African Revenue Services.
These are changes that make a multi-step re-export process all the more complicated.
“It’s like when South Africa exports via Maputo (in Mozambique). If we go to Maputo on a specialised reefer vessel and we land it on the ground, they’re required to give us a non-manipulation certificate to prove it wasn’t beneficiated – all that comes at a cost,” Connell says.
“Suddenly with these two new requirements coming in, rail is starting to take on a new look for the Zimbabwean farms.
“Historically shipping lines would not allow their reefer containers into Zimbabwe because of the risk of them evaporating, however we put a plan together through citrus growers and myself that we can control that with merchant haulage that it won’t go deeper than 65km, and that’s all you need to go and it will return on the same day.”
He confirms the shipping lines have given this plan the green light.