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Leading Importer Calls On Government To Lift Red-tape At Gqeberha

12 May, 2022: A major import-export business has warned that the critical lack of cold storage space seen in the wake of the Durban floods is aggravating supply chain disruptions, increasing the risk of potential food shortages.

Hume International, a leading food distributor which imported over 180 million kilograms of food products last year, notes that in addition to the destruction of vital road, power and water infrastructure, damage to commercial cold stores in KwaZulu Natal has placed serious pressure on Gqberha’s port facilities.

As a result, the company is now calling on government to implement a State of Emergency concession for Gqeberha, and lift some of the port’s red tape in order to facilitate the greater movement of food and other goods into the country.

Frederick Hume, the Managing Director of Hume International, explains that a number of container ships were forced to bypass Durban during the April floods, and were diverted to Gqeberha instead.

The situation has remained ongoing, however, owing to damages to numerous cold storage facilities, and the long-term impacts of the loss of key infrastructure. Additionally, remaining Durban cold stores had already begun to build up stock in anticipation of the upcoming citrus season, leaving many without any spare capacity to absorb the overflow of goods.

“Importers are therefore being forced to turn to Gqeberha, but the number of import cold storage facilities in the area which have been approved by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development are very limited,” says Hume.

Those who pursue this option are then being faced with severe constraints in terms of the number of containers that may be unpacked each day because of regulatory restrictions on food and meat imports.

“This has left many importers unable to draw cargo from the port and is causing significant congestion, which in turn risks deepening food supply chain disruptions with potentially far-reaching consequences for the local economy,” he notes.

“On behalf of all importers, we would like to respectfully urge government to alleviate the situation by granting an emergency concession for businesses to unpack a larger number of containers at the port. This would ease some of the delays and remove pressure on commercial cold storage facilities by enabling goods to be distributed more quickly.”

Precedent for special concession set in last year’s riots

Notably, an emergency concession would provide an immediate solution to difficulties regarding the application of Veterinary Procedural Notices (VPNs) at Gqberha which are responsible for limiting the number of unpacks.

“In terms of these VPNs, a veterinary inspector must be present whenever the seal on a container of imported goods is broken to verify that the contents match the packing list, and to draw samples for microbiological testing,” says Roy Thomas, Operations Director at Hume International. “But Gqeberha’s secondary port status means that there is significantly less capacity and fewer inspectors available to perform the duty.”

In the aftermath of last year’s riots, however, during which two cold stores in Durban were burnt down and a third damaged, government granted Hume International a special concession to utilise the Gqeberha port for containers originally destined for Durban. To manage this extra workload, the previous Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) further granted Hume’s request to appoint a secondary inspector or assignee to its facilities for 24 hours a day to comply with VPN requirements. DAFF appointed private company ASFQ for the supply of these inspectorate services, Hume International footed the bill for the service, and assignees reported directly to the local DAFF office.

Thomas states this agreement enabled the company to immediately expand its services and business within the Eastern Cape. “Before the concession, we were only able to unpack seven containers a day in Gqeberha or 35 containers a week. After the concession was granted, we were immediately able to double this volume, moving to a double-shift unpacking system and hiring additional staff to help manage the workload,” he says.

But once the Durban concession expired in October 2021 DAFF notified Hume International that it would no longer be allowed to use the services of assignees, forcing the organisation to again reduce the number of containers unpacked each day. “Allowing the concession for the appointment of assignees to remain in place offers a perfect solution to the issue of the verifying of containers and comes at no extra cost to the department, so we are hoping that government will consider making the arrangement permanent,” says Thomas.

“Cold stores at Durban and Cape Town are able to break container seals without inspectors present, as long as they keep a register and are able to present samples for testing once the vet arrives. The application of VPN laws seems inconsistent, and we hope that government will urgently consider our request for a concession.”