Can Maersk, MSC and Transnet save South Africa’s citrus season?

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Friday, 16 April 2021 20:47, updated on Monday, 19 April 2021 18:42

A street traders' fruit is displayed on a street in Pietermaritzburg
A street traders' fruit is displayed on a street in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

South Africa’s citrus industry is preparing for another bumper export season in 2021, but the threat of Asian citrus greening disease looms large locally and for the rest of the continent. Added to this are a potential shortage of reefer – refrigerated –containers and the likelihood of congestion at key ports.

Asian citrus greening is the “most devastating disease of citrus worldwide,” according to the department of agriculture, which has issued an alert to farmers.

“The only cure is the chainsaw. Basically, you’ve got to take the trees out. […] It seems inevitable that at some point we will have … Asian greening entering South Africa,” Justin Chadwick, CEO of the Citrus Growers Association (CGA), tells The Africa Report.

Asian citrus greening disease is also referred to as Huanglongbing (HLB). It is caused by bacteria that is “insect vector-transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid,” explains Chadwick.

Serious threat to the country, region and continent

The disease not only poses a danger to citrus production in South Africa, but to the wider Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the rest of the continent. Wherever it occurs, serious losses will result.

Already, traces of the bacteria have been detected in Ethiopia and Kenya, while the insect vector has also been spotted in Kenya and Tanzania.

South African growers, and others in SADC, have in the recent past encountered problems with citrus black spot, false codling moth and fruit flies.

The incidence of citrus black spot in South Africa has previously caused problems with the European Union (EU), the industry’s biggest export market. The citrus black spot issue was most pronounced between 2011 and 2014.

In 2013, the EU imposed an outright ban on South African citrus imports because of citrus black spot. Although the issue is not fully resolved, exports to the EU have since improved.

In 2020, the EU instituted an embargo on Argentine citrus imports, citing the occurrence of Asian greening disease.

Plan of action

“We had a video conference call with friends in Argentina [on 14 April]. Argentina has got citrus greening. They’ve got a big programme of monitoring it. We got a lot information from them,” reveals Chadwick.

In addition, “our research organisation – Citrus Research International – is in close contact with our immediate neighbours. Also further up into Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, where some of the elements of the disease have been found,” he says.

“Our researchers did travel there [East Africa]. They’ve got close relationships with the different research institutions and, through government, with the governments in those countries,” he adds.

This forms part of ongoing efforts “to try and reduce the risk of the spread southwards,” says Chadwick, who also points out that South Africa has “a different type of greening called African greening”.

The department of agriculture has constituted an HLB Steering Committee. The committee has developed a preparedness and response action plan.

In March, the agriculture department said: “departmental officials have met with their counterparts in Kenya, to map a way forward on how to deal with HLB and ACP [Asian citrus psyllid] in Kenya and to minimise its introduction into Southern Africa.”

Redirecting reefers

As that process unfolds, South African growers are getting ready for the citrus season in the next few weeks.

The industry estimates that 95,000 reefer containers will be required to fulfil export demand for the 2021 crop. The citrus season overlaps with that of deciduous and subtropical fruit. When considered together, that takes the requirement for reefer containers to 120,000 between April and October 2021.

“We expect to have challenges in terms of getting empty containers into South Africa to meet the increased demand for them,” says Chadwick, adding: “We have, as CGA, had discussions with the shipping lines. They are well aware of the concerns, of the need and of the demand.”

Globally, there is a shortage of reefer containers because of the heavy flow of traffic between China, and the US and EU. In addition, a swine flu outbreak in China has stimulated pork demand from the US, South America and the EU for export to China.

South Africa and other markets have been affected.

In response, MSC and Maersk have both availed reefer containers to South Africa in anticipation of another record citrus season.

  • MSC has diverted “a vessel carrying 1,995 empty reefer containers to NCT [Ngqura Container Terminal] despite demand in other parts of the world,” according to Transnet Port Terminals.

The NCT is situated in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro region in the Eastern Cape.

“They’re [shipping lines] responding to the need. But we need that to continue throughout the season. We need a good number of containers to come in every week and to be available. We’re going to have to monitor it closely,” Chadwick explains.

“The fruit industry is aware of the dire situation with regard to the shortage of empty reefer units required to facilitate export. This project was spearheaded in response to the industries’ critical requirement,” says captain Ian Rosario, the director of operations at MSC South Africa.

“We moved 16% more volumes [in 2020]. It wasn’t without its share of challenges,” admits Siyabulela Mhlaluka, general manager for sales and new business at Transnet Port Terminals.

Mhlaluka notes that in addition to the global shortage of reefer containers, another wave of Covid-19 would place pressure on terminals and the supply chain.

Ports watch

The citrus industry has been watching the progression of the grape season, which is nearing a close, and how South African ports have fared. Grape exports are primarily processed through the Cape Town port. The citrus players have noted problems in the tail end of the grape season.

“We’ve watched that with concern. But I must say in the last week or so we’ve seen improvement. One of the efficiency measures is the gross crane moves per hour. We’ve seen that improving in the last week. We know there are challenges in terms of equipment failures and maintenance,” Chadwick says.

“We have been in discussions with Transnet. In fact, today [Thursday], there was a citrus pre-season meeting with Transnet. They are well aware of the issues. They do have plans in place to have a maintenance programme. We are hopeful those issues will be solved by the time we get into the bulk of our citrus season,” adds Chadwick.

For citrus, Durban port is pivotal because it takes the majority of the produce for export. “We need that port to run efficiently. We need all the equipment to be working,” he says.

The Durban port has also caught the attention of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who went there on 15 April for an oversight visit. “Improving the performance of South Africa’s ports, especially the port of Durban, is a central objective of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan,” according to the presidency.

Record crops and congestion

Another potential headache for South Africa’s outbound citrus is the expected record crop of maize for export this year.

“Their product [maize] will be arriving in port pretty much when our season peaks. We’re going to have a lot of lorries coming into the port precinct,” notes Chadwick.

That could cause congestion in the Durban port precinct.

“There, once again, we are talking with Transnet. We’re also talking with the grain industry. I do understand that there are plans afoot to have truck stops outside of the Durban port area, and then feeding those trucks in so that you don’t have congestion,’ says Chadwick.

Lessons from 2020 season and Covid

On the ground – at the farms, packhouses and along the citrus supply chain – Covid-19 remains a factor. This is further compounded by a vaccine programme that has been slowed down by challenges.

The citrus industry, which weathered the Covid-19 storm in 2020 relatively unscathed, will draw on those lessons to navigate the 2021 season, says Chadwick.

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