Growing demand for temperature-controlled goods continues to drive global expansion in the cold chain and despite the challenges for shipping last year, forecasts for the reefer sector are very positive.

An efficient cold chain is essential to deliver perishable produce in premium condition from one side of the planet to the other, this is particularly true of fruit which has a short window for delivery, with thousands of miles separating producers and consumers.

Given this challenge it is important that the port and transportation infrastructure, and expertise are available, particularly when serving Asia, the biggest fruit consuming region in the world.

This is where the Hong Kong Seaport Alliance (HKSPA) has developed a world-class reputation in handling fresh fruit destined for China and across the region. This is due to its unique service offering which combines the capabilities and resources of all its terminals in Hong Kong. (Please read the feature in OPPORTUNITY Issue 6 to learn more about HKSPA)

HKSPA’s competitive advantage is that it has the highest vessel call frequency covering Intra Asia, Latin America and Oceania into South China, which means that fruit shippers and consignees have multiple shipping options to ensure their perishable cargo is delivered on-time in its best condition. In addition, HKSPA’s multi-modal connectivity via truck, barge and rail caters different delivery needs and capitalises on opportunities in China.

In terms of assets and resources HKSPA has a combined throughput of 15 million TEU as of 2019, operates 23 berths and 12 barge berths on 262 hectares of land.

With over 220 weekly liner calls to the free port of Hong Kong, there are no barriers to trade, meaning that perishable cargo such as fruit can move quickly and efficiently to end markets, such as China, 60 percent of Hong Kong’s imported fruit are reexported to the mainland.


Asia is the world’s largest importer of seaborne reefers, with estimates that the region will account for 62 percent of global seaborne reefers trade by 2024. At the heart of this boom in terms of volume is China which recorded a 24 percent increase in fruit imports in 2019, with a forecast that growth will total 60 percent by 2025.

Being the most open and international city in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), Hong Kong is known for its status as international financial, transportation, trade centres and aviation hub as well as its renowned professional services. HKSPA can reach more than 100 million consumers, with GDP set to triple in the GBA by 2030, further enhancing its status as an international shipping hub and key gateway to China.


To embrace the opportunity and capture this phenomenal growth, HKSPA is well prepared and is the only established hub in Asia with the resources, assets and transportation connectivity to ensure and secure time sensitive cold chain services that the fruit industry demands.

HKSPA handles 900,000 reefers a year and has 7,800 reefer points, the most of any port in South China. Apart from the hardware HKSPA is experienced in cold chain operations across its operations including sensitive and controlled atmosphere reefers, cold treatment and general reefers. The bespoke facilities also provide HKSPA with a platform to handle COVID-19 vaccines as a more economical alternative to airfreight.


We all take it for granted that we can walk into a supermarket or restaurant to buy and enjoy fresh fruit from all over the world. Not many people are aware of the massive cold chain infrastructure that ensures our bananas, durian, cherries and strawberries are fresh and tasty, whatever the weather or time of year.

Speed is of the essence when handling fresh fruits, as their shelf life from plantation to store is relatively short. Time and efficiency is critical because the sooner the fruits get to market, the higher the selling price. However, with temperature and humidity-controlled reefers and storage facilities across Hong Kong’s container terminals, HKSPA can ensure fruits are kept in optimum condition and despatched to consignees as quickly as possible.

“At HKSPA consignees can collect their shipments upon container discharge and have the container on its way in just 15 minutes” said Angelina Lei, Customer Service Director, Hutchison Ports HIT.


At HKSPA, the rise in reefer volumes provides opportunities to increase its significant market share in the fruit sector, but also to access other industry sectors that require an efficient and established cold chain.


As an example of the scale of demand in China, the world’s largest importer of fruit, Lei highlighted cherry imports from Chile.

“It’s now the cherry season and you may be picking between the Tasmanian cherries and Chilean cherries, but do you know that cherries are indeed China’s largest foods imported by value and with Chile dominating the market?”

“Hong Kong captures the growth in the cold chain by securing its crown in Chile cherry handling with over 80 percent of China’s imported cherries from Chile moving via Hong Kong,” said Lei.


In the wider world demand for temperature-controlled ocean transportation continues to increase exponentially, with annual growth at an average of 3.6 percent during the last ten years, while global reefer volumes rose to 130.5 million TEU in 2019, according to Drewry.

So where are the global hotspots and what is driving this growth in demand for reefers?

According to Philip Gray, Reefer Analyst for Drewry, there is also the continued natural growth within the Chinese market for imported foodstuffs and high-end fresh fruits such as cherries or exotics such as avocados.

“We continue seeing strong growth in citrus, and frozen juices both related to the feel-good perception, and also exotics such as avocados or blueberries,” he said.

Hong Kong is the first port of call in South China. With the city’s unique free port status, containers arrive from Chile can be picked up right after container discharge. This, together with a fast and simple customs declaration, allows these containers to reach Guangzhou’s Jiangnan Fruit & Vegetable Wholesale Market, China’s largest wholesale food market within four hours.

There are real competitive advantages as HKSPA’s efficiency means the fruits arrive in the market at least two days earlier, when compared to other South China ports and allows the traders to sell their fruit at a higher price, as the produce is fresher.

China’s appetite for imported fresh fruit is expected to continue to grow with an increase rate of 9.5 percent per year in the following 5 years.


The only inhibiting factor to growth in the reefer sector is a current shortage of equipment, driven by a combination of factors.

Drewry already anticipated a shortage of reefer equipment early last year, a combination of fewer units built during earlier years, particularly 2016, and a reasonable demand which now has caught up with the previous lack of investment,” said Gray.

Other factors include an imbalance in empty dry containers across Asia, where most goods are produced and exported to markets around the world. The shortage of dry containers has led to sky-high rates and resulted in many non-operational reefers being used for dry freight out of Asia, further lengthening cycle times and hence more shortage in demand areas.

Longer voyage cycles also quickly mop up any excess reefer equipment combined with congestion in many hubs which very quickly contributes to more equipment being ‘tied up’ within the supply chain, he added.