No more ‘one size fits all’ attitude at Portnet

South African Port Operations (SAPO), the government’s new ports operational division created from the restructuring of Portnet, has budgeted in excess of R1 billion for capital spending on upgrades across all of the country’s ports in 2003, according to SAPO General Manager Nad Govender.

Addressing a gathering of the Cape Town Exporters’ Association on Thursday, Govender said SAPO was currently looking at the affordability and priority of these infrastructure upgrades to determine how the funds would best be spent.

Significant improvements were ahead for Cape Town, he said, including a three-phase plan for the expansion of the container terminal, the replacement of three outdated cranes of the six now operating, and a new area to be allocated for reefer stacking within the terminal, among other projects.

The purchase of the three new cranes still needed to be approved by the Transnet board, Govender added. These upgrades, aimed at improving efficiency and space, were expected to alleviate some of the problems being experienced by exporters, among the most serious of which were the delays of between 48 and 72 hours between goods delivery and loading.

The major reason for the delays, he explained, was a rise in the number of containers per ship calling at the port — from an average of 350 containers to between 500 and 600 currently — rather than a higher number of ships.

“This has led to lots of delays at the container terminal. There is also a certain degree of inefficiency within the terminal and we need a significant improvement in the cranes,” the GM acknowledged. “But there are also external factors such as the wind, which has a serious knock-on effect.”

Delays were also created when smaller operators called at the port over the weekend, when export vessels were supposed to have priority. Only four years ago the Cape Town port had been running at a loss due to insufficient cargo volumes, he said, but within the last two years there had been substantial growth and a turnaround in its business performance. Cargo volumes grew 23% in 2001 and 11% in 2002, and were expected to expand by another 11% in 2003.

Govender said SAPO was also currently working with Cape-based exporters, particularly fruit producers, to forecast growth trends in order to determine future requirements for the port’s reefer capacity.

While welcoming the expansion plans, representatives of shipping groups Grindrod and Safmarine said their exporter clients were unhappy with the slow pace of expansion of the port facilities, particularly in the reefer area dealing with perishable goods. The availability of reefer plugs (for connecting the refrigerated or controlled air containers) was not keeping pace with the growth in volumes, and this led to costly delays as exporters had to pay additional storage, cartage and labour fees of over R1 000 per day.

“During the February-October period, the port simply can’t meet the demand,” commented Sharon Toerien, an export controller with Grindrod PCA. “Farmers such as local onion growers are exporting about 25% more every year, and more products — like berries, avocados, ostrich meat and even fresh flowers — are being sent via seafreight as opposed to airfreight.

“They added 50 new plugs last year, but we need at least double the current total–one big exporter can use 50 plugs at a time. And the lack of facilities also means exporters are expected to load the vessels in only one day — often on a Sunday –when on average it should take three days.”

Govender added that SAPO management was currently working hard to address a number of identified shortcomings in its operations and staff across all of South Africa’s ports, including: “very high” labour costs, the effects of HIV/Aids, low productivity and a depletion of skills, outdated systems, a disintegrated supply chain, poor customer focus, an antagonistic union relationship and an inadequate risk management and pricing strategy.

The group was busy with the rollout of new IT systems for general cargo, on-line information and planning, and stack management at terminals to speed up the loading/unloading process, he said. At the same time, it was aiming to provide a “seamless service across the supply chain”, from docking to unloading to customs to transport.

SAPO had embarked on a programme of ‘back to basics’ over the past year, under which it had improved ship turnaround times, reduced cargo damage, handled client complaints more quickly and effectively and made information more transparent. It was also addressing the challenges of labour through various incentive schemes and management plans.

“The old Portnet philosophy of ‘one size fits all’ no longer applies,” concluded Govender. “We are aiming to provide a more efficient, client-centric service and are on our way to doing this. – I-Net Bridge

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