Rajbah Chawan: Pakistani mango growers are hoping to take a slice out of rival India’s export market thanks to tough new European regulations.
The sweet, yellow fruit is a contentious matter regionally, with both countries proclaiming it a national treasure and fighting over whose specimens are superior.
Economically, at least, mango exports are one area where Pakistan appears to have a slight edge.
According to respective official figures, Pakistan last year exported around 100,000 tonnes for a revenue of $48.6 million (Dh178.5 million) over India’s 56,000 tonnes for $44.6 million.
But a European Union (EU) ban on India’s prized Alphonsos, known as the King of Fruits, has presented Pakistan with a chance to widen the gap.
The embargo came into force on May 1 after many shipments were found to contain fruit flies and also affected four types of vegetable.
For Raja Ijaz Ahmad Noon, parliamentary secretary for Pakistan’s breadbasket Punjab province, improving farming standards and learning where India went wrong is critical to cashing in.
“We are taking this development as positive. We are trying to learn from the mistake which India has made,” he said.
Noon was speaking after a seminar of 50 landowner-farmers at a fruit-farm 40 kilometres north-east of the central city of Multan to learn new methods of protecting mangoes from hazardous insects.
“We have a potential to export 40 per cent of our total production of mangoes and this year we will try to improve our exports up to 16 per cent,” he told AFP.
Syed Ismat Hussain, a senior pest control official, said his department was visiting farms and orchards to spread the word about the lucrative profits available if Pakistan can continue to meet EU standards.
“Fruit fly hasn’t only affected India but has threatened our orchards also. So we have devised simple but scientific methods to control it,” he said.
Experts are busy hanging plastic bowls on mango trees that are laced with chemicals that mimic female-fly pheromones to attract males.
“The holes are for the flies to enter, but they never fly out,” said Hussain. The so-called sex-trap is fast becoming an industry standard.
Meanwhile, a special awareness campaign on fighting the insect has also been initiated in newspapers and on television and social media.
Syed Zahid Hussain Gardezi, president of the Mango Growers Association of Pakistan (MGAP), described the taste of Pakistani mangoes as “mesmerising” and said he was hopeful about the chances for global growth in markets such as the EU, America and Canada if the campaign was a success.
“We have to work very meticulously, very scientifically to capture those markets,” he said.
The experts had also being extolling the benefits of so-called “hot water treatment”, which involves immersing the fruit in water at 52C to kill larvae within the mango pulp. The practice has become a common substitute for fumigation that is seen as harmful to human health.
Habib Agha, an exporter who sends his fruit to Scandinavia, told AFP his mangoes were already of top quality and he hoped to increase his shipments four-fold this year.
“There is a demand from the European Union that there should be no fruit fly in our fruits, it should be hot water treated, it should be anti-fungus, it should be washed properly. We (have) got these facilities in Multan now,” he said.
Despite a growing sense of optimism, there are several factors holding back the export market.
The fruit is most abundant in the southern Punjab, but the regional airport in Multan lacks direct flights to many major international capitals, meaning the mangoes must travel for hours by road to either Lahore or Karachi.
The mango is a sensitive fruit and needs plenty of irrigation, while long periods in cold-storage can negatively impact on fruit quality.
Pakistan’s chronic energy crisis means farmers are at times unable to use their water pumps to irrigate fields, while the increasing irregularity of the traditional monsoon season has exacerbated the issue.
“We are facing a shortage of water, simultaneously we have power cuts,” said grower Mohammad Ali.
“We can’t produce good quality mangoes unless we have a proper watering system.”