When Hurricane Dean roared through the Caribbean in August, no one could know how much damage it would cause in Europe. To be sure, the worst devastation in terms of death and destruction, took place in the islands. The first Atlantic hurricane of the season killed at least 20 people there and caused as much as $2bn in damage before spending itself in Mexico, according to German reinsurer Munich Re. In the days that followed, however, it became apparent that European livelihoods dependent on Caribbean trade had not gone unscathed. Perhaps nowhere was the impact felt harder than at Dunfresh, a fruit handling terminal at the Port of Dunkerque, in North France.
Dunfresh, the sole European importer of bananas from Guadeloupe and Martinique, was used to receiving 250 to 300 containers a week-more than 250,000 tons a year--from those two nations alone. But officials woke up to find that Dean had flattened 85 percent of the banana fields in Guadeloupe and 100 percent of production in Martinique. Dunfresh now moves only 10 to 15 boxes a week of fruit sourced from those islands. Its formerly bustling terminal is oddly quiet, and the lights-out portions contrast with the manic activity that preceded the storm. Yet Dunfresh is hardly done in. Its own diversified portfolio is helping it survive, says Bruno Devos, Dunfresh sales manager.
Dunfresh is one of five divisions of ConHexa, a large French concern active in food handling, packaging and transportation. Dunfresh was formed 10 years ago, and its business is mainly built on bananas from the French West Indies. Fortunately, two years ago it began importing fruit from Morocco, South Africa, New Zealand and other places. Shortly after that, it also began importing bananas from Suriname, where fields were well out of the path of Dean.
Pre-storm, French line CMA CGM arrived once a week at the Port of Dunkerque, usually every Sunday or Monday. The volume of fruit-between 250 and 300 containers per vessel-depended on the time of the year, Devos says. That, in turn, determined the number of trucks that left the terminal every day for maturation centers around Europe, but they usually numbered anywhere from 110 to 130.
Ninety-five percent of the bananas from Martinique and Guadeloupe are shipped to Dunkerque. The balance goes to Marseilles, but Devos says frequent work stoppages at the southern port will likely inhibit any increase in shipments there.
He notes there have been no strikes at Dunkerque since 1992, and stresses that time is critical in handling fruit, especially bananas, where the color of the ripening fruit makes or breaks a sale. "The social stability in Dunkerque was for us very key," he says.
Two other factors argue in favor of Dunkerque, Devos says. While the port is hardly small, it is not as large as competing harbors, especially Rotterdam. Consequently, terminals are not as far from the docks. Second, fees are cheaper in Dunkerque on average, he says. He says trucking containers from ship to terminal usually costs about 45 euros per box at Dunkerque compared to as much as 220 euros per box elsewhere.
Bananas are palletized in Martinique and Guadeloupe, and Devos says it takes no more than 30 minutes to move them through the Dunfresh warehouse and into the receiving trucks. That includes quality inspections. Employees from Dunfresh and representatives from the union of 600 to 700 growers in the islands are on hand to inspect the fruit, and any found to be prematurely ripening are diverted to the pet-food market. It's quite a different story with the Surinamese product, in terms of time. Bananas from there have to be palletized and barcoded in Dunkerque, and can take three hours to unload.
In vitro plantation is scheduled once the fields in Guadeloupe and Martinique have been properly cleaned, Devos says, and in eight to nine months, the first fruit should be ready. Dunfresh will have weathered the storm.
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