MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA FOCUS: Creating a safer cool chain

posted on 3rd April 2018

Megan Ramsay reports on what the region’s airlines, airports, and cargo handlers are doing to attract and improve handling quality for pharma and perishables shipments

The air cargo industry is moving towards a major change in the way it is conducted, in which specialisation is key and the days of simply moving cargo from A to B are numbered. This is the message from the head of cargo at the Middle East and Africa’s largest – and indeed the world’s largest − international air cargo carrier.

“Specialisation is now part and parcel of what we do,” says Nabil Sultan, divisional senior vice president at Dubai-headquartered Emirates SkyCargo. “Today, we must understand each vertical industry, the stress points, and provide solutions, not just space.”

Emirates SkyCargo, for instance, recently introduced “pharma corridors” to its network, which offer additional protection across selected stations in its network for pharmaceutical cargo. The airline says it is working with other members of the supply chain to ensure those stations comply with its own standards as well as EU GDP or IATA CEIV guidelines for handling the sensitive shipments.

The first 12 stations within this network of pharma corridors are Amsterdam, Brussels, Bengaluru, Cairo, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Milan, Rome, Shanghai and Singapore.

According to Julian Sutch, Emirates manager for pharma global sales, 53% of the airline’s pharma business comes out of Europe, “and there are already a lot of certified stations there. Another huge origin is India. Major destinations include the US and Australia so these are heavy on our radar in terms of pharma corridors for the future.”

Emirates is also launching dedicated pharma flights – services with a clear and specific focus on temperature control throughout the journey – which pharma shippers’ compliance teams are sure to appreciate.

The carrier’s SkyPharma facility in Dubai has exceeded expectations, Sutch says, and he anticipates that it will expand as pharma volumes continue to grow. “We’ve seen a rise of 38% in pharma traffic, year on year (2017 vs 2016),” he points out. Contributing factors to this development include the growing demand for healthcare tourism in Dubai as well as the city’s Industrial Strategy 2030 – which places great emphasis on the healthcare sector.

“Where there is demand and specific trade flows, infrastructure will reflect that. For example, Brussels airport has a pharma community (manufacturers, forwarders, handlers and the airport as a whole); a lot of airports are following this example. Dubai has this sort of community too – although it’s not a massive manufacturing hub for pharma (which is where these communities usually happen).”

Sutch perceives a big shift among pharma manufacturers. “They used to send individual shipments to Dubai, but now they are hubbing large shipments at Dubai for shipping out to customers pallet by pallet, as required,” he explains, observing that the Jebel Ali Free Zone pharma facility, which was mostly empty a few years ago, has been expanded and is experiencing strong demand.

Also in the UAE, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways is continuously reviewing its cool chain products and service levels “to ensure we are ahead of the game when it comes to service delivery”, says Justin Carr, vice president of Etihad Cargo.

“We have cool rooms at our Abu Dhabi hub; we use thermal blankets on temperature-sensitive shipments; have agreements with Envirotainer where we are certified as a Qualified Envirotainer Provider; and have GDP-trained staff.

“Industry certifications, investment in equipment and facilities, and product segmentation are some of the initiatives that will see the light in the times ahead,” he outlines.

Safer transport
Carr points out that regulations in the Middle East are different to many western countries. For example, several drugs commonly used in the west are prohibited, or highly restricted, in the Middle East because they contain of some type of alcohol or animal-derived ingredients, such as pork gelatin.

“There are obviously more stringent regulations for the transport and storage of pharmaceuticals compared to those of other perishables,” he adds. “Take vaccines as an example – it is imperative they be kept at a certain temperature to maintain their potency, and this temperature should not deviate by one degree. The high temperatures we experience during some months of the year can make the transport of highly sensitive products a challenge, which is why we have invested so heavily to protect the integrity of the cool chain.”

Carr notes that the regulatory environment for pharma has become stricter overall over the years, with some of the goods that could once be shipped as general cargo now having to travel under temperature-controlled conditions.

“In addition to that, the pharmaceutical logistics market is growing consistently, year on year, which requires more space and more specialisation from ground handlers and airlines,” he continues. “To this end, the investments made by parties to safely transport and store pharmaceuticals have resulted in a higher quality proposition and reduced mishandlings and temperature deviations. Bottom line: all the enhancements in the cool chain lead to a safer environment for the patient, which is the ultimate goal.”

Further investments in temperature monitoring and tracing technology will definitely help achieve a safer environment, Carr feels. “A move in converting the IATA TCR (Temperature Control Regulations) into a DG-like regulation would be necessary to ensure the GHAs assume the principles of a safe cool chain globally, not only at the major airports with a tradition of handling pharmaceuticals.”

A different mix
The cool chain in Africa is rather different from the Middle East; perishables exports play a significant role, while pharmaceuticals are generally not so prominent a sector. Gonzalo Jacob, CEO of Africa Flight Services Kenya (AFS Kenya, part of Paris-headquartered handler Worldwide Flight Services) says that exports from Kenya comprise 99% perishable flowers, meat, and produce bound mainly for Amsterdam (partly via Dubai, Frankfurt or Jeddah). Meanwhile, pharma and some perishables from various European countries as well as Johannesburg and Dubai make up just 10-15% of imports.

AFS Kenya boasts East and Central Africa’s largest and most modern temperature-controlled warehouse, Jacob says, and the company is currently upgrading the facility with GDP-certified real-time temperature-monitoring systems and various other enhancements.

“We are completing installation of an additional ULD truck dock to support some of our clients’ move to deliver their ready-built units in temperature-controlled roller-bed trucks, thus solving the last-mile issues – as far as the agent-to-cargo handler transport is concerned,” Jacob notes.

“Transparency provided by the temperature loggers being used to monitor the producer-to-agent segment will further enhance quality,” Jacob adds. He notes that this technology is helping to identify points in the supply chain where temperature excursions occur so that stakeholders can find appropriate solutions.

Maarten Klinjstra, general manager at Nairobi-based handler Siginon Aviation, agrees that, driven by the demand for quality and shelf life, Africa is “definitely aligning to global service standards in cool chain management to ensure customer satisfaction”.

He observes: “There has also been considerable investment in infrastructure to facilitate [transport from] farm to pack house to forwarder and airport, making it easier to [meet] customer demands. Improvements in landside logistics are a contributor to growth, diversity of product, and new export markets. Services such as Customs processes are also undergoing digitisation, to speed up processing times while the green shoots of e-freight are starting to reduce lag times. This move is being taken up by export agencies with more players joining the fold.”

Growers and suppliers are also becoming more organised and have made substantial investments in the supply chain. Plus, competition amongst airlines is “at an all-time high”. In this environment, what used to be niche perishables markets are now mainstream.

According to Klinjstra, cold chain customer needs continue to change dynamically and the industry must monitor those changes and align with them in order to ensure that services meet demands. Among the steps Siginon Aviation has taken is investment in an active temperature monitoring and reporting system and interactive temperature logger infrastructure that provides real-time temperature and humidity readings.
“The next level in improving the quality of service is to have cargo moving and ensuring real-time status updates with vastly reduced lag times,” he says.

Kenya’s perishables market has grown substantially over the past 20 years; traditional EU market demand remains strong and is dominated by contracted freighter capacity, which Klinjstra says is “at an all-time high this season”.

On top of that, there has been a rise in widebody passenger flights operated by foreign carriers. This additional belly capacity and quick connectivity through the airlines’ home bases has connected Kenya with new markets, especially in Asia.

Kenya remains a prime exporter of perishables. Things are changing on the import side, with “a large increase in pharmaceuticals by air”, Klinjstra continues.

“In addition, Kenya’s strategic position has made it a preferred location for regional distribution of emergency relief goods. These include medicaments, vaccines and emergency kits such as water-treatment equipment. This has contributed to a buoyant transhipment sector,” he concludes.