Citrus, Horticulture

How to enhance citrus export

By Ahmad Fraz Khan 

THE citrus, mainly kinnow, export season is at its fag end and has proved to be a mixed blessing for the country. On the one hand, almost 10 per cent of the crop was lost to the alternate bearing factor and weather vagaries.

On the other, both the phenomena improved weight and quality of the fruit, as trees had to support less number of fruits, and the country ended up earning almost 30 per cent additional foreign exchange because of better international prices. I am text block. Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

According to market figures, which are not absolute, so far 300,000-325,000 tons of citrus fruit was exported against an informal target of around 400,000 tons. The export figures, so far, are almost identical to those of last year, but earnings are up to $120 million against $90 million last year.

The uncertainty about the finality of both the figures – volume and value – comes from by road exports (read smuggling) to Iran and Afghanistan. No one knows how much citrus has gone to both these states, and at what price. But formal figures – less in quantity and more in earnings – create optimism for the country and its exporters.

However, the export pattern necessitates some long-term changes in production and handling of the fruit. For the last many years, citrus exports are on the rise. New markets have been found and a niche has been created in them. Exporters hope that the trend would not only hold but also expand in years to come, especially if some steps are taken, like developing new varieties that cater to the existing and new markets, build required infrastructure and improve management practices.

For new varieties, there is a need to work on two planks: for the East European markets and high-end European markets. During the last few years, Russia and Ukraine have emerged as the biggest markets for Pakistani kinnow. In a matter of five years, their share have increased from almost nil to an over 100,000 tons (around 30 per cent of the total exports). Both these states need smaller kinnow, which they consume with liquor for its strong taste and high sucrose content. Their share is increasing every year.

However, the domestic production is focused on large and medium size fruit. All efforts have so far been concentrated on increasing the size and improving the look of the fruit because Pakistan’s traditional markets – the Middle East and the Far East – need them. With the Eastern European countries emerging big markets, there is a need to adjust domestic production.

For the purpose, Pakistan needs to develop a new variety of seed that meets the requirements of Russia, Ukraine and possibly other East European states. Size of fruit can be controlled with management practices as well. But, it would be better if the country is somehow able to develop a new variety that does not grow beyond a certain size. The exporters hope to expand their share in area because of similar consumption patterns in the region. From a long-term perspective, the country needs to expand its citrus gene pool.

There is also a need to develop a variety that has reduced caloric value. Consumers, especially in high-end European markets, have become calorie conscious. With the current high caloric value, the fruit might not find many buyers in highly health-conscious European markets. The exporters have, so far, been targeting Pakistani population in the European states. The policy has its own benefits, but also limits the chances of multiplying exports. It is time to think beyond ethnic population.

Beyond developing new varieties for niche markets, there is a need to build cool chains in the citrus producing area. Their absence affects both production and quality, and worsens the so-called alternate bearing factor – a phenomenon, which gives better production one year and reduces it next season. In the absence of storage infrastructure, farmers use trees as stores and delay their harvesting till very late. Thus, with late harvesting, flushes for next crop start emerging on the tree and squeeze precious resources, effecting both existing and next crop. Ideally, the trees should be freed by early or mid-February. But, it is delayed as late as mid or late March.

The situation can only improve if cool chains are build in the citrus-producing areas and the crop shifted in them on time. Fortunately, processing industry of the country is improving and bringing dividends to local sellers. Even this year, the farmers and sellers made more money in local market than in exports. Thus the only missing link, as far as infrastructure in concerned, is cool chain system to help save the crop.

Exports to European market require a very elaborate system of quality assurance, and weaving them into the entire production and supply chain. That needs to be taken care of, to increase exports much beyond seven to eight per cent of domestic production, that can easily go up to 20 per cent, without affecting domestic market.

There are some examples in the world, like Chile, Holland and Thailand, which multiplied their horticulture exports within a few years, taking to billions of dollars. Given Pakistan’s natural endowments – four seasons and fertile land – it is surprising why it cannot learn from their experience and increase exports to 20 to 30 per cent of domestic production.

Courtesy: The DAWN