The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) recently hosted its first virtual Fresh Connections Southern Africa conference. The programme focused on the state of the fresh produce industry following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Various speakers discussed this topic in depth throughout the Fresh Connections event.

State of the industry 

Cathy Burns, chief executive officer of PMA, opened the first-ever virtual Fresh Connections conference. She provided a glimpse into how top global trends in the industry have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Burns, the pandemic has boosted online shopping across the world. “A major trend change can be observed in the e-commerce category,” she said.

In South Africa, the grocery category has shown immense growth on e-commerce platforms since the outbreak of COVID-19. This category has increased from 1,6% in 2019 to 3,2% in 2020. This year, approximately 64% of online shoppers used this platform for the first time to shop safely during the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, online shopping trends in the United States (US), where consumers are more familiar with online shopping, also changed. According to Burns, US consumers were forced to prepare meals at home during the pandemic, which meant that they cooked more from scratch than ever before. In light of this the sales of meal kits have doubled. Consequently, fresh produce sales have enjoyed increased popularity.

Watch the complete Fresh Connections discussion by clicking here.

Supply chain issues

The supply chain in the fresh produce industry faced multiple challenges during the ongoing pandemic. In a Fresh Connections breakaway session sponsored by CHEP, industry role-players discussed the various supply chain issues brought on by COVID-19 and the lockdown that ensued across the globe.

Most role-players cited that exports were severely affected by the changes at ports. Vessels did not follow their usual routes, which easily threw out export planning by three weeks. The way planning was done for exports has now been replaced by day-to-day planning to keep up with regulatory changes during the national lockdown.

Opting for airfreight to export fresh produce was not a feasible solution as prices for these services increased drastically during the lockdown. In terms of fresh produce that spoils easily, such as blueberries, exporters needed to get creative to mitigate losses caused by delays at ports. One such solution was introducing new packaging that preserves the product for longer in the event of delays at the harbour.

Retailers also faced their share of challenges and quickly came up with innovative solutions. Role-players in the retail sector said that despite the more obvious supply chain issues with logistics and deliveries, another challenge was making sure procedures were in place to take care of staff and consumers alike.

This includes managing the number of staff on site, adjusting working hours, managing positive cases of COVID-19, and testing. Fewer touchpoints in the fruit and vegetable section is also an important factor that is now receiving lots of attention. Consumers do not want to unnecessarily touch anything in retail stores. They also prefer less cluttered aisles, less secondary packaging, and products that have not been handled. People especially do not want to see other people handle their groceries. – Ursula Human, AgriOrbit