Triangular Supply Chains

Since the creation of the single internal market in the EU in 1993 and the move over to just-in-time supply chains which the removal of barriers on internal EU trade has facilitated, a growing ACP trade into the UK market takes place along triangular supply chain

These goods are either landed first in a EU27 member state before forwarding to the UK and neighbouring EU27 countries or being landed in the UK for forwarding to an EU27 member, most notably the Republic of Ireland.

The development of these triangular supply chains in the horticulture sector is the result of a variety of factors, including:

  • a particular marketing expertise which has been built-up in a particular EU member state (e.g. Dutch horticulture trading networks);
  • a particular marketing infrastructure which has been built up in a particular EU member state (e.g. the Dutch cut flower auctions);
  • simple economies of scale considerations which require consolidations of cargoes to make inter-continental shipping commercially viable;
  • purely commercial economic factors linked to shipping arrangements (e.g. the availability of cheap freight rates linked to tourism development);
  • policy driven commercial consideration such as lower phytosanitary inspection charges and handling fees in some member states);
  • the limited availability of shipping routes to EU markets.

The ability of ACP horticultural exporters to adjust their routes to market will vary according to the underlying motivation for the use of triangular supply chains as a means of serving the UK market.

The potential for trade disruption varies according to the nature of how the particular triangular trade supply chain functions, while the seriousness of the disruptions encountered will depend on the nature of the product, its shelf life and the nature of the supply chain (e.g. is it part of just-in-time supply chain arrangements). 

ACP horticultural product triangular supply chains are particularly vulnerable to Brexit related disruptions because of:

  • the withdrawal of the UK from the EU customs union and single market will create new administrative barriers to the movement of goods across the UK/EU27 border, which at a minimum will increase costs and which if not properly prepared for could result in denial of access to the UK market and the complete commercial loss of consignments;
  • the enormous new demand on UK border control services which will arise along current ‘roll on-roll off’ (RORO) ferry routes used by ACP triangular horticulture exporters which could place a strain on border clearance operations resulting in transportation delays and disruptions which will reduce the value of delivered products;
  • the need for further time-consuming phytosanitary inspections where horticulture products travelling along RORO routes have not already been cleared by EU phytosanitary authorities, with these products needing to be directed to special phytosanitary control points which are a considerable distance away from the port of disembarkation. This will lengthen journey times (increasing costs) and reduce the value of delivered products.

This requires ACP horticultural producers exporting to the UK via initial ports of landing in an EU27 member states (mainly the Netherlands, Belgium and France) to review the functioning of their existing routes to UK markets to assess their vulnerability to all likely Brexit related trade disruptions.


It is difficult to accurately assess the importance of triangular trade flows, given the absence of country-specific data on-ward trade flows across the EU once ACP products have entered the single EU market.

The following example from the cut flower sector is illustrative of what can be at stake for exporters in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The Netherlands plays a dominant role as a distribution hub for cut flowers to markets across the EU28. From the top 6 ACP cut flower exporters the Netherlands takes almost 90% of cut flowers exports to the EU by volume.

Any disruption of ACP cut flower exports to the UK delivered through the Netherlands would carry important implications for the concerned ACP cut flowers exporters, with this serving to strip value out of these triangular cut flower supply chains, since it is estimated a one a day delay reduces an exporters profit by 30%.

Main ACP Cut Flowers Exporters to the EU and the Netherlands (tonnes) 2017

Recent analysis shows ‘about 80% of the flowers sold in the UK are imported from the Netherlands which, in turn, imports and auctions off flowers from across the world’.

ACP triangular supply chains serving the UK market via EU27 member states along ‘roll on-roll off’ (RORO) ferry services using the Calais-Dover transport corridor will be particularly vulnerable to transport disruptions which could arise under a no-deal Brexit.

To date while Brexit preparations of EU27 port authorities, traders and ferry companies are underway little policy attention to how to facilitate the continued smooth flow of highly vulnerable triangular supply chains for products such as cut flowers. Without clear policy guidelines on how triangular trade flows should be handled in terms of border clearance and ferry loading and unloading procedure, it is difficult for port authorities, traders and ferry companies to take appropriate practical steps to minimise disruptions of triangular supply chains.

This issue needs to be seen in a context where the ACP cut flower trade into the Netherlands of the six largest ACP exporters alone was worth over €500 million in 2017 alone. Addressing the issue of ensuring the continued smooth flow of products to the UK along triangular supply chains is thus of considerable importance, particularly to least developed countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.


There is a need for ACP cut flower exporters to urge their governments to take up and address with the concerned EU member states authorities the policy issues which need to be addressed in order for port authorities, traders and ferry companies to take appropriate practical steps to minimise disruptions of triangular supply chains. If these policy discussions are not taken up and addressed with the concerned authorities on both sides of the channel then it will be extremely difficult for the concerned port authorities, traders and ferry companies to take appropriate practical steps to minimise disruptions of this important triangular trade in cut flowers.

ACP cut flower exporters will also need to review their routes to UK markets to determine to what extent direct exports of cut flowers to the UK market can be initiated or expanded.



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