Letters to the editor

Copyright 2001 FleetWatch magazine and FleetWatch On-Line.

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Past Issue

October 2001


ATTRACTIVE and distinctive, Umbhaba Estates' livery clearly spells out that this is about bananas. Umbhaba's brand is now 22 years old and is the livelihood of approximately 1 000 employees on two farms. It is also visible on the national freeways of South Africa ranging as far as East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town 

Umbhaba has acquired four new MAN 27.464 truck tractors that operate at 30 tons payload with a single tridem-axle semi-trailer at gross combination masses of around 50 tons. Rotating all the time, 13 drivers drive 13 rigs. MD Roy Plath insists that drivers are not on the road for too long. "They will spend four days at a time on the road and need at least two nights at home every week. That is why we cannot assign one driver permanently to a vehicle combination."

If you think farming bananas is an idyllic existence in a sub-tropical paradise, you are dead wrong! Bananas are a logistical fruit-jam of temperature sensitive products needing support from thousands of banana-tree props, mountains of blue plastic wrappers, many cold rooms, hundreds of tons of fertiliser, millions of litres of direct irrigation water and most important, fleets of trucks. And all this into an over-supplied and price-sensitive market. A visit to Umbhaba Estates in Hazyview, Mpumalanga by FleetWatch's Dave Scott is a real eye-opener for anyone who casually unzips a banana every day for breakfast.

Umbhaba Estates, as an individual grower, supplies around 15% of the South African market with this delicious fruit. The total SA banana market is approximately 250 000 tons annually based on an average of 25 tons per hectare with 10 thousand hectares presently under banana plantations. 

My first question to Roy Plath, CEO of Umbhaba Estates, was: "Why should you concern yourself with road transport operations when your core business is growing bananas?" His answer sums it up:

"Umbhaba is much more than a banana grower. We transport temperature-controlled, unblemished bananas and offer our customers reliable and swift delivery. To do this, we prefer to remain in control of delicate logistical balances that make up the supply chains."

And this obviously pays off for according to Plath, in 10 years of service to Pick-'n-Pay, "we have only been three hours late on one occasion with six drops at this customer every week of the year."

Bananas drive the system
Bananas have a three-week window from the time of picking to being nibbled by consumers. They grow, mature, ripen, must be picked, stored and delivered all year round. Temperature control, a consistent 12 - 18 oC, plays a major role in ripening cycles but processing and transporting are relentless pressures because there is no way bananas can be delay-stockpiled to match market conditions. At Umbhaba Estates, this means delivering 1 000 tons per week in peak season down to 500 tons per week during low periods. 

An insatiable water thirst plus nutrient requirements fuels a banana plantation's demand for feeding. Support systems at Umbhaba include many storage dams for thousands of metres of irrigation drip systems and a daily input of kraal manure transported from cattle feedlots around Middelburg.

This in turn means earthmoving machinery for dam building and maintenance, including trailers dedicated to transporting organic fertiliser - the by-product of 'exhaust emissions' from thousands of cattle.

Roy Plath, banana grower extraordinaire, personally pilots a Bell 206 Jetranger helicopter. He is adamant that his company operates top class trucks supported by their own workshop technicians who must know the trucks they service better than the suppliers. "We are ancillary transport operators who will remain as private transport operators." Umbhaba has examined road transport outsourcing decisions and has found that these do not fit the strategic intent and profile of the business. 

Major cost items 
As with all truck operators, fuel is the leading cost item, especially when annual distances covered run up to 250 000 kilometres on each unit. 

Umbhaba is the first operation I have come across that successfully has in place incentives for drivers on vehicle fuel consumption per load carried. Benchmarks for the 50-ton GCM rigs are based on routes they travel and consistently sticking to 80 kph. Target fuel consumption is 38 litres per 100 km - at this level bonuses are paid. Between 40 and 44 litres/100 km, there are no incentives for drivers and over 44 instigates an enquiry as to the reasons for excessive fuel usage.

Tyres rank as the next highest variable cost in road transport operations - one of the reasons why automatic tyre inflators are standard equipment on the fleet.

Toll fees are one item people tend to gloss over. In July this year, Umbhaba's toll road account on the N4 alone ran at R50 000. At present, toll fees amount to a massive R400 000 annually and Plath does not believe Umbhaba, as a major user, is receiving value for this.

"Toll road users are submissively silent. We all seem to just accept what is dished up and in the face of Umbhaba's massive toll fee account, I do not think our fees represent fair value. Considering that we pay so much in other taxes, I don't think we are getting a fair deal."

His gripe stems from the fact that the N4 toll road was, for example, an existing road and was then tolled to effect upgrading.

"I feel it is morally wrong to have turned this road into a toll road just to upgrade it. That is not giving us value for money. There is supposed to be some form of tax contribution to road maintenance in our license fees and in the fuel price so where does that go to? The point is that we pay tax around every corner and nothing comes back to us. We are all being ripped off by government. They can't just keep whipping the citizens tax-wise as they are going to kill the spirit of free enterprise and people's keenness to trade.

"And it's not as if the government inherited a bad infrastructure. They received an excellent roads infrastructure so all that R50 000 toll fee has served to do is add to my costs. I contend that the toll fees need to be reduced as we are being fleeced around every corner in this country."

Crime adds to the cost
Crime magnifies fixed costs. Every rig always carries a driver plus assistant - the latter has the 'major' task of remaining awake while a driver sleeps, to ensure that theft does not occur to vehicle equipment. The vehicles are also equipped with Netstar tracking devices and Digicore's Co-Driver.

Umbhaba has suffered one hijacking loss where the whole vehicle combination was taken across Mozambique's border. The driver was implicated in the plot and remains out on bail after one year. Plath feels strongly about this: "The SAPS and border guards are not doing their job. Our taxes are being wasted in lack of enforcement."

Trailer refrigeration systems are another big-ticket capital cost. Umbhaba has had positive experience with Carrier reefer units lasting up to around 11 000 to 12 000 hours in service. In a 2000-hour year, that is around six years work on the road - not bad at all.

Safety is not negotiable
Umbhaba carefully monitors driver retardation techniques - power train management is what it's all about. Breath analysers are used for random checks as drinking and driving is a dismissible offence. 

The success of this banana transport operation lies in a hands-on approach by Plath, helped along by sons Shane and Dean. An example of his hands-on policy lies in the fact that he personally drives the vehicles he purchases. MAN had to run the gauntlet of Roy's test drive prior to acceptance into this fleet.

With such an approach, manufacturers would do well to listen to his input. "With all the technology available today, why don't vehicle manufacturers fit tracking devices enabling a vehicle to be tracked for life?" Good question!

FleetWatch has always contended that the trucking industry plays a vital role in every aspect of the lives of South Africans. So next time you peel a banana, spare a thought for the professional input of the trucking operation that strives to get it to your breakfast table deliciously fresh.

EVER wondered why every banana bunch is covered with a blue bag? Blue bags protect bananas against the ravages of light hail, wind damage and certain types of insects. Research has showed that blue is best for the fruit - all of this is in the interests of better quality for consumers.
AN INTERNAL transport issue is handling this blue bag mountain. They require washing, sorting and baling for re-use as essential covers on growing banana stems to protect the fruit. Only virgin material can handle attack by the sun's UV rays, so recycled plastic does not work. The blue bags last up to three growing before being sold to plastic recyclers. 
EVERY banana tree requires at least two supporting stakes to prevent the bunch from falling onto the ground as the fruit matures. These stakes have to be transported in on bolster trailers and then re-distributed into the plantation. This is in-bound logistics to produce quality fruit.
ATTENTION  to detail - all Umbhaba's wheels are connected to Vigia automatic tyre inflator systems. Like Caltex, another major Vigia user, Umbhaba's experience has been positive in terms of preventing run-flats and on-road problems. In Roy Plath's own words, "Our automatic tyre inflator systems carry the trucks to their destinations where we can deal with tyre problems."
ORGANIC farming is an extensive Umbhaba business practice and weed-killers, for example, are definitely forbidden. The company transports 400 tons of kraal manure every week from Middelburg fe`edlots for stockpiling and distribution into the banana plantations. Apart from transporting kraal manure by road, there is the cost of material handling equipment to get it into plantations.