Mango: King in India, no kingdom abroad

Workers pack pre-mature Dasheri mangoes, which are less sweet and fragrant, at an orchard in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh.  (Sayantan Bera/Mint)
Workers pack pre-mature Dasheri mangoes, which are less sweet and fragrant, at an orchard in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh. (Sayantan Bera/Mint)

Summary

  • While mango varieties such as Alphonso, Dasheri, Langra and Kesar are popular in India, their export market is modest because of a short shelf life, sky-high freight costs and strict standards for entry. India needs a research-driven breakthrough commercial variety to dominate global markets.

Amroha/New Delhi: Nadeem Siddiqui caressing a mango is a sight to behold. He places a Chausa, a late flowering variety, on his palm to measure how well it is growing. He climbs a tree of the popular Langra variety searching for spots and pests on unripe mangoes. The black-rimmed glasses Siddiqui is wearing add to the seriousness of his probing eyes. Like a primate looking at his prized possessions.

Siddiqui climbs down from the 60-year-old tree and instructs the worker shadowing him to cover more fruits with protective paper bags to shield them from birds and flies. He is a third-generation grower from Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, a few hour’s ride from the national capital, Delhi.

So far, 2024 has been good for Siddiqui. “Last year, I lost close to 50 lakh due to a freak hailstorm. This year I am hoping to recover the losses," he said, sitting on a charpai, under the shade of giant mango trees spread across the 25-acre orchard. The oppressive June heat, closing in on 50 degrees Celsius, is a little more bearable here.

Nadeem Siddiqui, a third-generation grower from Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, inspecting mangoes on the trees.
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Nadeem Siddiqui, a third-generation grower from Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, inspecting mangoes on the trees. (Sayantan Bera/Mint)

Production in eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh has been lower this year due to adverse weather while growing areas in southern and eastern India have been hit by low yields due to untimely rains and prolonged heat stress.

For Indian consumers, the mango season spans four months—from April to July— with supplies peaking with rising mercury and ebbing with the progressing monsoon. This year has been pricey—the best varieties are in short supply, which means retail prices are upwards of 100 per kg. One could still get prized southern or western varieties on ten-minute-delivery grocery apps—but those aams cost an arm.

At the orchard next to Siddiqui’s, a contractor oversees workers neatly arranging Dasheris in boxes that will be dispatched to India’s financial capital, Mumbai. But the fruits have been harvested two weeks ahead of maturity and so are less sweet and fragrant.

This year has been pricey—the best varieties are in short supply, which means retail prices are upwards of 100 per kg

This annoys Siddiqui. “What will the consumer in Mumbai think of our Dasheri?" Quality is paramount for the grower and exporter, whose produce competes with the famed Alphonso variety from coastal Maharashtra and Kesar from Gujarat, both within and outside of India.

Siddiqui isn’t worried only about what consumers in Mumbai will think as he also caters to many in the Arab world. He is a leading exporter of the fruit from India’s most populous state, flying commercial varieties such as Dasheri, Langra and Chausa to markets in the Middle-East. But his ambitions, and his mangoes, like those of many of his fellow exporters, go no further.

Unfit to Travel?

The ‘king of fruits’ has been cultivated in India for 4,000 years, and the country is known to grow about 1,000 varieties. Indeed, India is the largest producer of mangoes in the world, accounting for half of the global output. And yet, less than 0.5% of its annual production of 20-22 million tonnes is exported. That’s because the country’s best mango cultivars are ill-suited for commercial export and only a handful of popular ones drive the market. The birthplace of the fruit is yet to hit upon a variety that can dominate global markets.

Consequently, in 2023, India’s share in global mango shipments stood at a mere 6.3%, lower than Mexico (21%), Thailand (15%), Brazil (12%) and Peru (11.6%), according to a review of tropical fruit markets by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (January 2024).

In 2023-24, India exported 93,000 tonnes of fresh mango and pulp (valued at 1,120 crore)—a decline of nearly 40% from 2021-22.

So, why isn’t the world’s largest grower exporting more mangoes? Experts cite two reasons; first, as mentioned earlier, the best varieties grown in India do not travel well over long distances. On the other hand, mangoes grown in Mexico and Brazil, such as the Tommy Atkins and Kent varieties, are better travellers, thanks to having thick skins. But what they enjoy by way of a longer shelf life is offset by the lack of sweetness and complexity of flavour.

In addition, Latin American exporters Mexico, Brazil and Peru, among others in the region, have been able to capture the premium US and Canada markets not so much because of the quality of their mangoes as their geographical proximity, which makes for lower freight costs.

In 2023, India’s share in global mango shipments stood at a mere 6.3%, lower than Mexico (21%), Thailand (15%), Brazil (12%), and Peru (11.6%)

Since most Indian mangoes have short shelf lives—between two days to two weeks after harvest—the air route is the preferred mode of transport. This pushes freight costs up. For instance, the average air freight for Siddiqui is around 70 per kg this summer. This, too, is from smaller international airports such as Lucknow and Jaipur to destinations in the Middle East. The payout on freight is higher than the price at the farm gate—it costs more to transport a mango than it costs to grow one.

For destinations in the US, the transport costs are in multiples of wholesale mango prices. This summer, the air freight charge from Bengaluru to a US destination is about 450 per kg—over four times what it costs an exporter to procure mangoes ( 110 per kg for Banaganapalle). “Compared to the pre-covid years, air freight costs have more than doubled, hurting the export of mangoes," said K.S. Ravi, managing director of Innova Agri Bio Park, Bengaluru, which runs an integrated facility for the export of various farm commodities, including mangoes. The facility was set up at a cost of about 200 crore.

The second reason India’s mango exports have remained low is the strict entry standards set by importing countries, imposing a high compliance burden on anyone who wants to ship agricultural produce. The United States, for instance, requires imported mangoes to be irradiated (exposing the fruit to gamma rays) to ensure they are pest and disease-free. The European Union asks for hot water treatment (immersing fruits in water heated to 48 degrees Celsius, for an hour). Japan and New Zealand require vapour heat treatment (heating the fruit with air saturated with water vapour).

Some of these processes alter the taste and quality of the fruit, while temperature variations during transport lead to internal injuries, said S. Chandrasekaran, a Delhi-based farm trade analyst. Besides, these standards are more suited to fruits grown in temperate regions, such as apples and pears, and not tropical ones like mangoes, which are mostly grown in south and southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, most mangoes exported from India land up in the Middle East, which only checks for pesticide residue. In 2023-24, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman took close to 60% of the fresh mangoes shipped from India, compared to less than a quarter by the US, the UK and Canada, as per numbers from the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA).

“There is no financial viability in exporting mangoes without government support. Setting up post-harvest facilities for a seasonal fruit available for just three months in a year does not make business sense," said Dhaval Meghpara, director of the Junagadh-based Vanraj Mills in Gujarat. “You can do that for bananas, which are available round the year, but not for mangoes."

Meghpara’s family owns a 25-acre Kesar orchard, which he says is more a “passion project". About a decade back, he had explored the prospect of setting up an export business but aborted the plan eventually. “Our family does 100% organic farming, but the Kesars are in their prime just for three to four weeks in a year. How can I pour money into a business that lasts for such a short time," he said. And so, most of the produce from the farm is gifted to family and friends.

Not surprisingly, traders in the farm supply chain say mangoes are a ‘kacha’ business—one fraught with risks and losses. On the ground, all it takes is a heavy spell of wind in the winter to blow away the mango flowers and ruin a season’s harvest. At the business end, the inability to obtain export clearances on time can leave them saddled with truckloads of decaying fruit.

North-South Divide

Mangoes evoke a range of emotions—from pride in one’s regional cultivars (the scientific term for variety), to envy and heartburn. During India’s annual mango season, plump yellow Banaganapalles from Andhra Pradesh square off with firm green Malgovas from Tamil Nadu. A war of words is par for the course: is the delightful Himsagar from Bengal superior to the aromatic Jardalu from Bihar? While this friendly rivalry is welcome in a country whose people, like its mangoes, can sometimes be thin-skinned, there is a far more serious North-South divide when it comes to the business side of things, especially exports.

Data from APEDA shows that varieties grown in the western and southern parts—Kesar, Alphonso, Banaganapalle, and Totapuri— dominate the export market. In 2023-24, these varieties comprised nearly a quarter (23.7%) of fresh mango exports. In comparison, northern varieties such as Chausa, Langra and Dasheri account for less than 5% of exports. This is despite Uttar Pradesh being the largest mango-growing state in India, with a 26% share in domestic production (2023-24).

The availability of post-harvest facilities and popularity on foreign shores drive this regional skew. For instance, all four US-approved irradiation facilities for mango exports are in southern or western cities—Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Nashik, and Mumbai—and there are none in the North or the East. Growers in the North and East complain that their varieties are not known to international customers.

“East- and North-grown varieties need wider promotion in international markets, where the consumer is willing to pay a premium (the retail price on US market shelves ranges between $12-15 for a kg of Indian mangoes)," said Innova Agri Bio Park’s Ravi.

Ignorance of Norms

The export challenge is not limited to the availability of post-harvest facilities or promotion, said Ravi. “Most farmers do not know how to grow and prepare mangoes for the export market," he said. “Freight and logistics are major pain points."

This year, Ravi’s facility exported 700 tonnes of mangoes on its own. “We invested in this integrated facility but there were not many takers. Traders who want to export do not even know where to find an APEDA-registered grower. They don’t know where to get a residue analysis done or where to get boxes and foam nets for packing," he lamented. “So, we now provide end-to-end services and also export directly."

There is a big communication gap between growers and exporters, said Ravi. “To an exporter, a mango crop from a certain orchard might look perfect until it reaches the facility," he added. “Using paper bags to cover individual fruits can greatly improve the quality by reducing pathogens, but it is a costly affair. So, exporters need to work closely with farmers."

Things are not going well for Innova Agri Bio Park at the moment. In the past few days, the facility has seen a drastic reduction in the inflow of mangoes for export—from 25-30 tonnes a day to just 1-2 tonnes. The reason? Heavy rains in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka have spoiled the harvest.

Plagued by Indifference

Indians have been obsessed with the king of fruit for centuries. Mango leaves are commonly used in Hindu religious and social ceremonies. Ancient mythological texts are peppered with references to the fruit; one of the five arrows of Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love and desire, is made of mango flowers. Ain-i-Akbari, the 16th century treatise by the Mughal emperor Akbar, has a detailed account of different mango varieties.

Most commercial varieties of mangoes grown in India were developed over a hundred years ago, while some such as Alphonso and Dasheri are even older.
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Most commercial varieties of mangoes grown in India were developed over a hundred years ago, while some such as Alphonso and Dasheri are even older. (PTI)

But despite this obsession, little is happening on the ground today. Most commercial varieties grown in India were developed over a hundred years ago, while some such as Alphonso and Dasheri are even older (about 300-500 years old), said Shailendra Rajan, scientist and former director of the Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture, Lucknow. Most of these varieties are alternate bearing, meaning, a bountiful harvest is usually followed by a lean one. A few research varieties, such as Amrapali and Mallika, were bred to be regular bearers, but even these were released for commercial cultivation back in the 1980s. And they could never trounce the popularity of the ancient ones.

“For all the talk and poetic descriptions of mangoes, the crop is plagued by indifference—from the soil and farm to the markets and kitchens," said Sopan Joshi, author of a forthcoming book titled Mangifera indica: A Biography of the Mango (Aleph, July 2024).]

Most orchards are managed by contractors who employ fly-by-night practices—overusing chemical inputs to maximise yields, for instance. Joshi, whose research and travels for the book lasted a decade, adds that the 24 varieties that have commercial value in the domestic market come from only one species: Mangifera indica.

Scientific evidence suggests that the species originated in the Indo-Burma region spanning north-western Myanmar, Bangladesh and north-eastern India. Sixty-million-year-old fossil impressions of carbonized mango leaves found in Meghalaya form the basis of this hypothesis.

Mangifera indica has travelled far and wide, with nearly 120 countries reporting its cultivation, according to the scientific compendium The Mango Genome (Springer Nature, 2021). The species is highly heterozygous, meaning, it shows a lot of variability at the time of fertilization (fruiting). A mango tree born out of its seed is unlikely to bear fruit like the parent tree.

For all the talk and poetic descriptions of mangoes, the crop is plagued by indifference —Sopan Joshi

Growers get around this problem by grafting varieties on top of seedlings. But this means entire orchards have trees that are genetically very similar, giving pests an opportunity to train themselves over time. The common mango encounters more than 400 documented pests. So, even when consignments are not rejected because of pest infestation, they could be turned down due to the presence of chemical residues. Both of these are critical bars to clear when it comes to exports.

While the immediate outlook is gloomy, there is a hope that Indian mangoes will claim their rightful place on the shelves in every corner of the world in the not-too-distant future, just as apples and oranges and pears and peaches from every corner of the world are making their way into urban Indian homes today. Innova Agri Bio Park’s Ravi certainly hopes so. “This year we took the effort to introduce northern varieties like Dasheri and Chausa in the US market. Hopefully, we will see an uptick in volumes next year," he says, fingers crossed.

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