Buoyant reefer trades could provide an opening for niche players to challenge the major container lines.

Refrigerated markets have proved more resilient to the pandemic and economic downturn than other cargo types, according to Greg Tuthill, senior VP of SeaCube Containers.

“Population growth and urbanisation continues to demand more food from different regions,” he told the Cool Logistics Global conference last week.

Annual growth in reefer container shipping could reach 4-6% through to 2024, Mr Tuthill predicted, “irrespective of how we recover from the pandemic.”

While perishables are the usual staple of reefer shipping, he believes carriers will be jostling for a slice of the Covid vaccine supply chain so coveted by airfreight.

“Vaccines are first going to be moved via airfreight, but followed by replenishment or backfill by ocean freight, so there will be high demand for vaccine transport in the ocean mode,” Mr Tuthill suggested.

But of course, he added, reefer cargo has not been exempt from the huge disruption to shipping networks seen this year. Mr Tuthill noted there had been reefer shortages from global lockdowns and, with the greater imbalance in trade flows since the crisis began, too many empties have been left in destination markets.

But events have created opportunities for niche players, however, he told delegates.

“We’ve seen a lot of consolidation, and the carriers have really leveraged scale by building very large ships over the past decade. But the smaller vessels and niche carriers are actually more versatile, in terms of trying to provide better services in developing markets and smaller markets.

“So vessel size versatility is becoming more important, and I think that may continue to drive some diversity in the marketplace,” he said.

Andy Connell, director of A-Bar-C Services, described how reefer shipping “rescued” South African growers during the height of the country’s lockdown and resulting supply chain disruption.

“Our port productivity went down to such a degree that we were lucky to have the specialised reefer vessels as a parachute, which shows their versatility,” said Mr Connell.

“We went from 147,650 pallets on conventional vessels last year to 198,000 – that might be a one-off, but it’s given a new lease of life to the specialist reefer, when you look at the South African context, because many exporters found it more reliable way of getting door-to-door by going fruit port-to-fruit port.

“More and more of the specialised fleet are combined carriers, toom- with space for a hundred-plus containers, which is of huge benefit,” he added.

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