Countries have resources to support their economy and to feed their people, but often they either do not have enough resources or there is an absence of certain resources. To make up for any shortfall in resources, various commodities have to be imported, i.e. those commodities have to be brought to the country that needs them. Countries that have a surplus of certain commodities will send those commodities to a country that needs them, i.e. the country sending the commodities exports them to the country that needs them. (See the diagram below.)



Moving a commodity from a producing country (a country that has a surplus of that commodity) to a country that needs the commodity (a country where there is a demand for that commodity) is the basis of trade between countries.

Economy of scale is an important consideration in discussing transport types. The amount of cargo to be transported, the distance over which the cargo will be transported, and the urgency of the consignment affect the tariff that will be charged.

A large volume of cargo over a long distance will cost less per ton per kilometre

A small volume of cargo over a short distance will cost more per ton per kilometer.

Because most trade involves moving heavy and bulk commodities across oceans or seas, shipping is the most important transport type in international trade.

About 92 percent of all trade is conducted by sea.

Some items may be moved by aircraft – e.g. small, light items such as clothing, jewelry, or highly perishable and valuable items such as cut flowers, live crayfish or fresh fish. Occasionally, some heavier items may be flown to their destination because the items are required urgently (e.g. important pieces of machinery to replace faulty machinery in a mine or in a factory in South Africa may be flown from Germany).

Heavier or bulk cargoes may be transported by road truck or railway within a country or within a region (e.g. containers may be moved from Gauteng to Cape Town by railway or by road truck; imported grain may be taken by railway from Durban to Botswana.)

For shorter distances within a region or a city, goods are transported by road in vans or road trucks.


In international trade, shipping moves about 92 percent of all goods. Photograph : Brian Ingpen


Test Yourself

  1. What type of transport would be used for each of the following consignments: (Note that some may require two types of transport for each of the legs over which the consignment will be transported.)

1.1   180 000 tons of coal from Witbank (Mpumalanga) via Richards Bay to China

1.2   35 forty-foot containers from Port Elizabeth to Bloemfontein

1.3   a generator (made in Japan) required urgently for an oil rig that is in Ngqura

1.4   a small parcel of gold from Johannesburg to London

1.5   16 bulldozers (15 tons each) from Canada to Cape Town

1.6   4 500 tons of fresh fruit from Ceres (Western Cape) to Oslo (Norway)

1.7   7 kg of documents from Pretoria to New York

1.8   120 000 tons of logs from Lagos (Nigeria) to Johannesburg

1.9   250 000 tons of crude oil from Kuwait to Saldanha Bay.

1.10   6 forty-foot containers from Hamburg (Germany) to Walvis Bay via Cape Town

  1. A factory in Koln (Germany) has two containers of clothing ready for export to a clothing store in Johannesburg. Koln is on the River Rhine and the containers will be brought from Rotterdam (at the mouth of the River Rhine) to Cape Town aboard a containership.

2.1   Give three types of transport that could be used to bring the containers from Koln to Rotterdam?

2.2   How will the containers be taken from Cape Town to the warehouse of the clothing store in Johannesburg? (Two possible types of transport.)