ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — During a visit to Pakistan almost a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she hoped Americans would soon enjoy eating the country’s “delicious” mangoes thanks to U.S. assistance.
Now these prospective American mango eaters increasingly look to go hungry.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has spent $3.1 million to help Pakistani mango growers get their fruits ready for export, and the U.S. government has overturned a ban on imports of Pakistani mangoes. But high transportation costs and strict regulations mean that few mangoes are likely to make the transatlantic trip this year, and the USAID project will target European markets instead.
“There is little chance of commercial exports of mangoes from Pakistan to the U.S. increasing significantly,” USAID said in a recent document. “Logistics are too costly.”
Mangoes have long been used by local politicians to woo voters and by Pakistani leaders to smooth relations with their Indian counterparts. So it’s no surprise that U.S. officials saw opportunities in the king of fruits.
Richard Holbrooke, the late special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had made a habit of eating local mangoes, which he called “the best in the world, without offending other mango producers,” in a veiled reference to Pakistan’s archrival, India, the world’s leading producer of the fruit.
The United States has done more than speak favorably of the nation’s horticultural pride. Under USAID supervision, 80 Pakistani mango farm owners received training and funding to streamline sorting, washing, packaging and storing processes so that the fruits meet global certification standards.
The growers are expected to pay half of infrastructure costs, with U.S. funds covering the rest. Farid Khakwani, who owns a mango farm near the central city of Multan, said that he invested more than $100,000 in his new processing line but that he hopes to recoup the investment with access to new markets.
“For growers of my capacity, it was a huge financial undertaking,” Khakwani said. “But I’m glad I did that.”
With the United States being the world’s largest mango importer and Pakistan being one of the top producers, the stage seemed set for a fruitful trade. The Pakistani community in the United States is an eager consumer base, evidenced by the suitcases full of mangoes carried into the country by relatives and occasionally seized by U.S. Customs.
U.S. authorities have designated only one port of entry, Chicago, for Pakistani mangoes; from there, the imported fruit must be shipped to a facility in Iowa for irradiation treatment to destroy bacteria and insects. Ahmad Jawad, a fruit exporter based in Rawalpindi, estimated that shipping and handling costs come to $22 for a case of about five pounds of mangoes. Unless they are given more options for shipping and irradiation destinations to bring down costs, U.S. importers will be reluctant to commit, he said.
“We desire to export mangoes to the U.S., but unfortunately there are many issues that have yet to be resolved,” he said.
Despite procedural hurdles, Khakwani said he still hopes to ship his mangoes to the United States in mid-July, when the fruits are of the best quality.
“It will be an honor and exciting,” he said. “And a business opportunity, too.”
Brulliard is a special correspondent.