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After announcing its decision on Friday to withdraw from the Europe-West Africa trade, Japanese ocean carrier MOL said it would continue to serve the West African market from Asia.
This is despite the fact that this trade is also facing great challenges and suffered a 12% year-on-year volume decline in April.
Its last southbound vessel, the 2,600 teu Atlantic Voyager, is scheduled to depart Antwerp on August 3, with its final northbound sailing departing Tema on August 29.
“Our decision was inspired by the poor financial results of our Europe-West Africa service and the fact that, based on the present market outlook and cost exposure, conditions for an improvement of the results are not favourable,” the company said.
The sharp drop in in oil prices has hit the economies of African nations, such as Nigeria, that depend heavily on oil exports for revenue, and with commodity prices for iron ore, copper, rubber and cotton also plunging, a recent report by the World Bank predicted a “challenging year” for the continent.
According to the latest analysis from Drewry Maritime Research, the headhaul Asia-West Africa trade made a “stuttering start” to 2015, after recording healthy growth of 7% in 2014.
However, volumes shrank by 4% in the first four months of the year to approximately 410,000 teu.
Container Trade Statistics’ (CTS) data supplied to Drewry show that in April southbound trade volume was 12% down on the same month of 2014, at 107,000 teu. However, this was not nearly so bad as March, which saw a massive 29% year-on-year slump in the headhaul traffic.
In response to weakening demand on the route, carriers have slashed capacity southbound from 203,000 teu in February to 178,000 slots in April, said Drewry, by skipping a number of voyages.
The deteriorating demand picture has also forced container lines to reconsider their business strategy of upgrading the size of ships deployed on the trade.
According to Drewry data, although blanked sailings have helped to boost average ship utilisation levels on the southbound route – from just 45% in March to 60% in April – the capacity cull has failed to arrest the continual decline in spot rates, which plunged from almost $4,500 per 40 ft in May 2014, to less than $2,500 per 40 ft a year later.
On the major east-west shipping lanes this year, carriers have been largely unsuccessful in implementing general rate increases (GRI), and the Asia-West Africa market has brought equally bad times for ocean carriers.
Drewry noted that a $600 per teu GRI planned for June 1 had been postponed until July 1, but said it “was unlikely” it would be entirely successful, given that “very little has changed in the interim”.
This all seems a far cry from the TOC West Africa briefing held in Tenerife in December, when delegates expressed concern at the worsening levels of port congestion blighting the region and the ability of the container terminals to cope with the cascading of larger tonnage onto the trades.
Drewry’s analysis concluded: “The demand outlook for this trade has quickly deteriorated and is unlikely to reverse course in the short term.”