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Reefer sector to benefit from trade growth driven by exotic fruit forecasts Drewry

Growth in the reefer shipping trade has been largely driven by soaring demand for proteins into swine flu-ravaged Asia, but this trend is expected to recede as domestic pig stocks recover. Future growth is expected to come from accelerating trade in exotic fruits, thanks to new technology which is lengthening potential shipping distances and opening up new markets where discretionary spend is rising.

Growth in overall seaborne reefer trade has broadly matched that of dry cargo over the past 10 years, expanding at an average annual rate of 3.8%. Proteins and bananas dominate the trade, accounting for 52% of total 2019 traffic of 130.5 million tons. Meat in particular has been the driver of growth over the last 12-18 months due to significant imports into China on the back of the effects of African Swine Flu. But with Asian pig stocks recovering, import demand is expected to recede, leaving many to wonder what will propel future reefer trade growth?

Exotics have become the rising star of the trade over the past 10 years. According to Drewry’s Reefer Annual Review and Forecast 2020/21 report, seaborne trade in exotic fruits outgrew that of all other major commodity groups, rising at an average annual rate of 5%.

This has not been an overnight phenomenon as trees take years to bear commercial fruit. While the trade in pineapples has slowed, mangos, persimmons, durians and particularly avocados have seen soaring demand.

Mangos are now the second largest exotic fruit in volume terms after pineapples, with over 1.3 million tonnes of seaborne traffic recorded in 2019 and an average annual growth rate of 5.2% over the prior 10-year period. This category is also benefiting from strong investment in growing regions, with larger orchards aimed at export markets rather than the small grower with a couple of trees and an ad-hoc approach to exports. In some producing areas Mangos share the supply chain of avocados, such as packing facilities, while in end-markets there is commonality in the use of ripening rooms for the ‘ready-to-eat’ experience.

However, the avocado has become ubiquitous thanks to a combination of improved agriculture, new post-harvest processes and supply chain innovations that enable ready-to-eat availability for end-consumers. It goes so well in salads and sandwiches. Its oily and smooth texture negates the need for mayonnaise, which has been well known in growing countries for generations. But it is the discovery of the endless possibilities in markets across North America, Northern Europe and now throughout Asia that is helping to fuel its growth.

Significantly, the avocado trade has most benefited from the technological advances in reefer shipping containers, particularly their improved machinery reliability and wider controlled atmosphere options, enabling the product to travel further and extend its shelf life. Indeed, the fruit is the third largest import produce handled by the Port of Rotterdam after bananas and grapes, where avocado imports leapt by a third in 1H20 to reach 244,000 tonnes.

Multinational fruit producers have moved into the avocado business, investing heavily in new growing areas, particularly in Peru and Colombia. The strength of the product is also demonstrated by the successful IPO of Mission Produce in early October, the largest avocado marketer in the world. The company plans to invest in Europe, Asia and South Africa as part of ensuring a 12-month supply and to hedge against the vagaries of weather and climate change.

However, near term some more mature exotic fruits such as pineapples will continue to experience slowing trade as they are vulnerable to the downturn in the Covid-19 ravaged food service business. But over the medium-term prospects for the exotics fruit trade remain very promising with Drewry forecasting average annual growth of more than 6% over the next four years.