Russia’s naval blockade of the Black Sea has resulted in logistical chaos in Ukraine, the world’s fourth largest grain producer. The consequence is that many African countries now face the very real prospect of famine while many Ukrainian farmers have no idea what they are going to do with this year’s harvest, given that their silos are still full from last year’s crop.
As Ukraine and the EU frantically try to find, what diplomats call ‘alternative routes’, I went to see for myself what’s being done to speed up Ukraine’s grain and wheat exports.
In the Kremlin’s crosshairs
Reni in Ukraine is one of the only places of its kind still operating in the country and remains a key hub when it comes to exporting Ukrainian corn, wheat and other crops.
Driving into the port town, I passed scores of piled-up sandbags and checkpoints. There are big fears here that it could become a target for Russian missiles.
For now, the town’s main problem remains logistics. The outdated method used to transfer grain to barges, from the trains and trucks that arrive, means the port’s authorities are unable to cope with the volume of produce arriving.
The result is that some 2000 Ukrainian truck drivers are stuck just outside Reni. I met two of them, Vitalii and his son Bohdan.
“Russia is the aggressor, they are to blame,” Bohdan told me, while Vitalii said: “The unloading should be better organised. We can handle waiting for three days, but two weeks!? It is so hot! There is a lack of water and toilets.”
Roman too, another truck driver transporting sun sunflower seeds from the heavily shelled Mykolaiv region, also criticised the slow pace of things: “The problem is due to the delays caused by the barges,” he told me.
On my arrival in Galati, in Romania, I found workers toiling in blisteringly hot conditions in a bid to repair a railway line – a precious link that could be worth its weight in gold once it is up and running. That’s because it’s the only place from Ukraine and Moldova, to the EU, with a broad-gauge rail line.
Viorica Grecu, a Romanian railway manager told me, “Millions of tonnes of cereal could be exported through this line.”
The port of Constanta
The Romanian port of Constanta is one of the oldest in the world. Despite its age, it’s home to probably Europe’s most modern grain handling facility.
Officials here are working hard to get as much grain as possible from Ukraine out to the rest of the world, but Dan Dolghin, the port’s cereals operation manager told me that they’re having to wait for new equipment to arrive before they can scale-up capacity.
“We need to increase the speed of transhipment at the border and the speed of unloading barges and trains in Constanta Port. To double capacity we need machinery, cranes, pushers, we are talking about 20 million euros. But we need at least two or three months to get it – these two or three months we will have a bottleneck for the Ukrainian goods.”
Parts of this historic port resemble a scrap yard. As I look around I come across railway tracks from 1939. But rapid change is already underway here, with repair and construction work taking place everywhere.
The race against the clock has begun. In Constanta, Galati, Reni, as well as other hubs, the European Union, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine have a common goal: to build new free trade routes.
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