The unexplored potentialities of the Pakistani mango

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To generate sizeable economic growth

 

Given that the hub of mango export is gradually shifting to Multan, this VHT plant should forthwith be installed on government property in this city and run as a revenue-generating government monopoly until competitive investments in this area are made

 

As the mango season for 2016 draws to a close, it is time to take stock of how much of this exquisite product’s trade potentialities we have meaningfully and sustainably exploited for our national benefit. On the surface, mango export has bounced upwards of 100,000 tons in 2016 according to official estimates, up from 44,000 tons in 2015 and a steady decline in previous years from 105,000 tons documented in 2011 by the ITC. While the decline owed in large part to tightening international controls regarding health and safety standards, this year’s surge was aided by the operationalisation of an international airport at Multan in 2015, the opening up of neighboring Chinese and Iranian markets after immense diplomatic effort, and the successful installation of Mango Hot-Water Treatment plants across Southern Punjab in fulfillment of international, most significantly European, import standards. Another major contributing factor has been the substitution of the expensive international GAP certification for mango-exporting farms with domestic certifications provided by the federal Department of Plant Protection (DPP) as sufficient for allowing export. Given that an exported kilogram of the best varieties of our mango sells for an average of $3 as opposed to 50 cents at best in the home market, and that our Chaunsa fetches as much as $3 a piece in the USA, the profit potential in mango export is fairly obvious. In addition, this year’s glut in the domestic market, despite thousands of acres of rich mango orchards lost to housing projects in Multan, equally hurt both the farmer and the broker financially. This oversupply further emphasises the export imperative as national mango production stands at an estimated 1.8 million tons in 2016.

Another facet of the mango’s economic potential, however, is not so readily discernible. In his scathing indictment of economic injustice in Pakistan, the outgoing UNDP country director has recently spoken of vast regional disparities in the distribution of development and state largesse across the country. Dilating upon the UNDP director’s criticisms, whereas there are pockets of the country, e.g. north-central Punjab, that receive more than their fair share of developmental uplift investments, wide swathes of the country, including southern Punjab, the home of the mango, do progressively worse on socioeconomic indicators like health, education, per capita incomes etc. threatening the nation’s very existence. Since the top-down elitist model of development in Pakistan is broken beyond repair, perhaps it is time to look for homegrown solutions to regional problems.

Capitalist farming is the mainstay of the economy of present-day southern Punjab as opposed to rapidly-eroding feudalism that so dominates the popular imagination. Given the sheer number of people eking out their livelihoods through agriculture, any infusion of wealth into this sector will result in diffuse income benefits for millions of heretofore underprivileged citizens of this country. Rising incomes will translate into citizens procuring for themselves the basic amenities that the state has consistently failed to provide. Since the 1960s, elitism and the overarching textile imperative of the government’s economic policy have inhibited southern Punjab from making complete use of its cotton potential. Large-scale mango export, if only managed judiciously and equitably, can affect a paradigm shift in the economic prospects of this region and go a long way in reversing the widespread feelings of deprivation and inequity. The districts of Multan, Bahawalpur, Muzaffargarh, Raheem Yar Khan, Khanewal and Vehari stand to gain immediately from mango exports. Spillover income and employment effects will not take long to materialise in adjoining districts because of the complex interdependencies within the agricultural sector.

The deft application of public policy will be key in realising the mango dream. First and foremost, the nature of the product must be understood. The mango is a very delicate fruit meaning that the delay-time between it being picked from an orchard to display on a foreign market shelf needs to be as short as possible to save it from decay. This virtually rules out the possibility of sea-freight. Air-freight is the only viable option for the more lucrative western markets for which the newly-constructed Multan international airport is a major boon. This development has been to the major chagrin of decades-old mango exporters based in far-off Karachi who have traditionally been happy supplying to their captive markets in the Middle East. The Multan airport, therefore, incentivises local mango growers to graduate to export. What is badly needed, however, is the establishment of cold storage facilities at the airport so as to enhance the volume and longevity of the fruit being exported. A public-private partnership drawing on the federal ministry of commerce’s export development funds will make any such cold-storage facility a winning venture.

Vapour-heat treatment (VHT) will open promising far eastern markets like Japan and South Korea for our mango. VHT is a more expensive procedure than hot-water treatment. In 2010, the federal government imported a VHT plant from Japan at a cost of $2.4 million to be installed in Karachi. Since then, the plant has been gathering rust at the Karachi port pending investigations into procurement irregularities and disputes regarding installation location with influential businesses. Given that the hub of mango export is gradually shifting to Multan, this VHT plant should forthwith be installed on government property in this city and run as a revenue-generating government monopoly until competitive investments in this area are made.

Presently, there are 15 hot-water facilities across South Punjab primarily installed on the farms of relatively well-off landowners. In principle, the government should not allow this small set to crystallise into yet another extortive elite coterie by first pioneering and then facilitating greater investment through subsidised grants and loans into this relatively cheap technology. The DPP should be expanded beyond its offices in Karachi and Lahore so as to be able to proactively certify export-worthy farms and to avoid sinking into a large landowner-focus. The DPP should also be policed in that it does not morph into yet another rent-seeking government organisation looking out mainly for its bureaucratic interests. Presence of the dreaded, trade-killing fruit fly in mango shipments to Spain from DPP-certified farms this year begs the need for constant uncompromising regulation of not just the growers but of the certifying authority as well. Increasing margins may motivate growers to overlook proper processing controls but Pakistan does not afford a repeat of 2013 when the entire mango shipment to the UK was dumped on account of the fruit fly almost culminating in import bans from Europe.

Mango export has the potential to generate sizeable economic growth for Pakistan in general and Southern Punjab in particular. If by making the right moves we are able to consistently improve on this year’s export, there is no doubt that the superior taste and quality of our mango will beat out our primary variety competitor in the international market: India.

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