The increasing network of cargo and passenger flights to and from developing countries has had a strong positive effect on certain perishables markets, for example in Africa, opening them up to new international export possibilities.
As well as expanding the available capacity and network of destinations – and, crucially for the perishables trade – the frequency of the connections, the increased available bellyhold capacity has also helped keep a lid on air freight export rates, particularly with Africa being an predominantly import-driven air freight market.
Cargo sales teams for the major Middle Eastern network carriers, especially, are capitalising on the headlong growth of their passenger networks by convincing perishables exporters they can connect them at the required speed to a much wider variety of destinations than was possible a few years ago.
“Flower growers talk about the same one or two markets, such as Amsterdam. We can open new opportunities far beyond the traditional flower markets,” says Duncan Watson, VP Africa for Emirates SkyCargo. “It’s the same for fish exporters in Senegal. They used to say ‘we send our products to Paris’. Now we fly their sea bream, sea bass, red mullet, groupers and shrimp to Beirut, Rome and Cyprus. Airport-to-airport time from Dakar to Rome will be between 18 to 25 hours and to Cyprus about 16 hours, depending on the connecting flight out of Dubai.”
Facilities on the ground have had to improve to enable this. Airlines may have been the catalyst, but it has required a change of attitude by state operators and, in those markets that have begun to liberalise, investment from private entrepreneurs. New temperature-controlled facilities typify the progress West Africa, especially, has made since the Icelandic volcanic eruption of three years ago. When European airspace closed back then, a massive backlog of pineapples and mangoes was simply left to rot in Accra.
Ghana Airport Company has since built the AGPC Centre at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport airport, managed by Air Ghana and Kenya’s Freight Wings, to store perishable cargo, an investment supported by international agencies based on the initiative of the Ghanaian government.
“Authorities across the region are having to look at what they need now and going forward to maintain GDP growth, and cool-chain capability is a key part of that,” Watson says. “Warehouses were built to cope with the market as it was 10 years ago. But the way some of these markets are growing, even if you double in size, that may only cover you for the next three or four years.”
Emirates operates a direct weekly B777 freighter from Accra to Frankfurt and in January upgraded its daily passenger service to a 777. This operates Dubai-Accra-Abidjan-Accra-Dubai.
“Perishables on passenger aircraft will have a longer transit as the shipments connect to the destination via our hub. But this can still meet the daily requirements of supermarket chains at the destination,” Watson says.
The carrier added 15 new destinations to its network last year, including Lusaka, Zambia, and Harare, Zimbabwe. The combined service from Dubai to these destinations has increased from five flights per week to daily, and on 1 February the A330 was upgraded to a B777-300, providing additional capacity for flower and vegetable exporters.
Cut flowers are exported throughout the year, with a September to March peak season, neatly balanced by a peak in fresh vegetable shipments that runs from May to September.
“Additional freighter capacity is introduced based on market demand and commitment,” Watson says. Emirates’ scheduled freighter capacity to Lusaka is mainly there to support imports into Zambia.
Meat made a surprisingly large contribution to Emirates’ perishables traffic in 2012. Shipments of lamb, sheep, goat and beef carcasses and cuts into the Middle East increased significantly from processors in Dar es Salaam, Khartoum and Addis Ababa.
Watson explains: “When a buyer somewhere like Jordan starts sourcing from Tanzania rather than Australia, for example, we benefit from the regularity of our daily or double-daily connections. An upside of the meat business is that there’s not such a seasonal spike as with fruit and vegetables.”
While price is the main driver, quality also has an influence on buyers’ sourcing decisions – though it goes without saying that the meat must comply with the quality-control checks of the importing country. Availability and proximity are also relevant factors, as meat can be delivered to the market within 24 hours.