Reefer trade sails against the wind

Paula Stefan
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While the container shipping lines are teaming up in an attempt to withstand a downturn, Paula Stefan at global reefer logistics supplier Easyfresh Logistics says reefer cargo is facing a new challenge at container ports

The capacity of the largest container ships currently on the water has risen from around 14,000 TEUs before the financial crisis to just under 20,000 TEUs today. Container vessels are taking the place of supertankers as the “monsters of the seas”.

The move towards ever bigger vessels poses a risk to ports that lack the capacity to handle them. International trade is shifting towards huge pivotal hubs. Meanwhile, smaller ports are losing many of their direct connections.

To avoid this fate, port authorities in some countries are now investing heavily in upgrading their infrastructure to handle these larger vessels. But what about reefer cargo that is the utmost “transit time-sensitive”? These big hubs are not always “reefer-friendly” ports!

As a matter of fact, the reach of ports as facilitators of crucial fresh and frozen cargoes extends far and wide beyond their perimeters to affect the movement of goods, the flow of trade, development of markets and economies, and even on the pricing of products. They have become such critical trade components within the cold-chain that the economic or trade development strategies of all nations inevitably incorporate the planning, organisation, development and promotion of their seaports as a key component of the food and perishables logistics chain.

In addition to the above mentioned new “over-sized” fleets, many other trends are affecting reefer traffic through global ports, which have exerted massive influence in the way they are planned, developed, operated, positioned and marketed, and even in the manner they are being perceived by policy planners, economists, investors, operators and produce shippers or receivers.

Among the most important trends are:

  • Changing trends in production and consumption of all types of food and produce.

  • Enhanced focus on food security.

  • Consolidation of port operations and continued investments by port operators in other ports worldwide.

  • Changing patterns in distribution, food retail and reefer transportation.

  • Joint investment by port operators and private companies in various reefer-linked activities.

  • Increasing cooperation among ports to share resources in coldstorage and other capacity building.

  • Changing composition of port ownership.

  • Increasing involvement of reefer container shipping companies in container port development (plugs, storage, etc.).

  • Increased focus on improving tariff structure as a competitive strategy.

  • The introduction of value-added services and infrastructures such as free zones and distriparks at ports to attract packaging and other food and fresh/frozen cargo related industries.

  • Increased focus on intermodal linkages, primarily with third-party logistics (3PLs) with a specialised reefer focus.

These trends will continue to shape the planning, organisation, development, management and operation of reefer seaports worldwide in the years to come. Port authorities and terminal operators will have to adjust their strategies, development and operations to suit the dynamics and realities of the perishable trade. As such, they must pull out all the stops to keep pace with trends and developments affecting the reefer industry, especially in areas such as reefer logistics, reefer shipping, intermodal transportation, production, economics and produce trade.

Ports are tripping over themselves to offer comprehensive, value-added logistics services to attract more users. Seaports are expected to be more involved in reefer logistics services, undertaken either alone or via strategic alliances with logistics operators or 3PLs with a specialised focus. Mirroring a worldwide trend of the evolving role of ports, seaports are poised to act more as transit points of fresh and frozen cargoes within the intermodal transport network than mere recipients, processors and distributors of cargoes.

Meeting such challenges emanating from an ever-evolving trade and production dynamics and a world in constant flux will demand huge capital outlay, meticulous planning, a high degree of responsiveness, trained and talented human capital, an acute sense of anticipation and unwavering commitment to follow up on strategies laid out on the part of port owners, authorities and operators.

The ports are placed in a difficult competitive position here, because the carriers are basically saying to them: “If you do not expand and invest in new cranes etc., we’ll take our business somewhere else”. This statement is partly true. But what would happen if a fruit exporter said to a shipping line: “I do not want to work with a big port with a lack of flexibility or fresh fruit mentality”? For sure, the line would have to at least think before sailing with an empty slot!

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