Port of Dunkirk profits from empty return transport to UK

Port of Dunkirt profits from empty return transport to UK

The port of the Northern French town of Dunkirk isn’t known as a port of call for fruits and vegetables. Located at a junction of trade routes, Luc van Holzaet, manager of Conhexa, sees many advantages for this port. His company has been located in the port for decades.

In a regular year, roughly 400,000 tonnes of bananas arrive via Conhexa’s terminal. “This year it’s less because a large volume was lost due to Hurricane Maria,” says Luc. “A major batch was lost because of it. Of the origins we handle, Guadeloupe and Martinique were most affected , but supply from other destinations did well. Some countries are more exposed to cyclones than others.”

 ACP bananas for Europe

The bananas are imported from Costa Rica, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Suriname and Ivory Coast. Banana growers on the French islands are facing various challenges in relation to the dollar bananas. Import tariffs for dollar bananas showing a declining trend in Europe doesn’t make it any easier. “In Guadeloupe they’re not allowed to use certain pesticides because they’re part of the EU, while these are still allowed in other countries,” Luc says. “That results in an uneven playing field for the growers. The growers are subject to European regulations and in other countries to local legislation, and these aren’t the same.”

“The Dutch market is more familiar with dollar bananas from South America, we’re more of an outsider, and we do the European and ACP bananas more,” Luc explains. These bananas can traditionally be found on the French market more often, although they can also be found in the rest of Europe. “Bananas from the Canary Islands can mostly be found in Spain. The African and ACP bananas mostly find their way to France,” Luc confirms. “When the French market is saturated, however, the bananas are sent further into Europe, as far into Eastern Europe as possible.”

Logistical junction
Dunkirk turns out to have a favourable location on trade routes within Europe. “We’re at a three-country junction between France, Belgium and the UK,” Luc says. Much is shipped to the UK from various ports in the north of France. Every two hours, a ferry leaves from Dunkirk to Dover, and a bit further south in Calais, much traffic leaves for the other side of the Channel via the tunnel. “We’re across from the UK, and that market is imbalanced. That is to say, 70 per cent of the lorries are empty upon return to transporters throughout Europe. Thanks to that stream of empty lorries, we can easily arrange transport further into Europe.”

“From our terminal, the bananas go straight into ripening chambers. We have ripening units nearby, so that it’s less interesting for us.” Customers can be found throughout France. “We check the customer’s goods, we’re their eyes. Because of imaging material and our inspectors we can take action when necessary. The customer doesn’t necessarily have to be present on site.”

Future for Dunkirk
Although the bananas make up the largest share of volume for Conhexa, pineapple, mango, citrus, coconut, tomatoes and vegetables can also be found in their storage. Family company Conhexa was founded in 1976. In the early 1990s, the company settled near the port of Dunkirk. At the time, focus was on frozen products under the Dunfrost name. Later that decade, the step towards fresh products was taken when Dunfresh was founded. Nowadays, the company has 30,000 square metres of conditioned storage. “We started in frozen, and fresh was the second step we took. The divisions are about equal in size now.”

Close to the North Sea
In the past, French ports were liable to be shut down due to strikes. In 1992, the terminal used by Conhexa became privately owned, and organisation was tackled. “We’ve been working with this terminal since 1993, and we’ve never had a strike. That’s important for fresh products,” Luc continues. He personally prefers calling Dunkirk a Flemish port in France. “We’re located close to where the containers arrive at the terminal. As soon as the containers are on the quay, they’re plugged in so that their shipment remains cool,” Luc explains. The containers are then picked up by Conhexa’s own workers. “We have a dedicated gate, which is advantageous to us.”

“All big ships can call at the port of Dunkirk without a lock,” Luc continues. At low tide, the port has a depth of 16 metres. “I’m convinced the port of Dunkirk has good options.” He mentions the run-time for Antwerp, 7.5 hours from the North Sea. In Dunkirk, ships can be docked after 1.5 hours from the North Sea. “On the French market, everyone knows us, but for a Dutch importer, it isn’t always logical to import through Dunkirk. The largest volume is still in Rotterdam and Antwerp, although it sometimes happens that a ship from, for instance, Morocco is unloaded in Dunkirk for a buyer in the Netherlands.”

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Luc van Holzaet