THE (SWEET?) SMELL OF SUCCESS

Malaysia 2019 | TOURISM | FOCUS: DURIAN EXPORTS

The foodie world boasts many acquired tastes, from moldy cheese to preserved eggs. Yet, Mother Nature herself has provided perhaps the strangest of the bunch, one known as the king of fruits—the durian.

More a chameleon than a king, the taste of this enigmatic fruit is difficult to pin down. All have one thing in common: an alarm bell for conservative palates. So paradoxical is this savory-sweet fruit that descriptions of its taste and fragrance are legend. Avoiding the more visceral for readers contemplating lunch, it offers garlic and caramel poured into whipped cream and chives and powdered sugar. The noxious fruit is prohibited in many airports, public transport, and hotels in Southeast Asia.

Expanding the Field
A tropical fruit, the durian enjoys well-drained, deep soils and a hot environment of 24-32 degrees Celsius in 75-80% humidity. Harvested ripe off the ground, there are 134 officially registered varieties, with the Musang King, D24, and Red Prawn being the most popular in Malaysia. And with export markets in the crosshairs, family orchards and modest farms can no longer suffice. One durian producer voicing sizable growth expectations is Newleaf Plantation Berhad. Indicative of the premium status of its pungent product, the company calls Malaysia's Musang King durian the Hermès of the crop. It expects to add a further 1,000 acres dedicated to durian to its current 50 acres.

Global Durian Production
Malaysia and Thailand lead the worldwide production of durian, together accounting for close to 90% of the total. Back in 2016, Thailand grew 600 million kg, topping Malaysia's 400 million kg, which in turn dwarfed the third-largest production volume of 71.5 million kg by the Philippines.

Tapping Export Potential...
Tellingly, Malaysia and the Philippines have historically consumed most of their own output, where Malaysian durian exports have been south of 5% of total production. Meanwhile, the figure for Thailand exceeds 60%. A major factor behind Thailand's impressive ratio is its 2003 Free Trade Agreement with China. Once inked, that meant a tariff cut to zero for 188 types of fruits and vegetables, and, consequently, export dominance in a lucrative market.

...as Malaysia Smells Coffee
As of May 2019, just one in 100 durians reaching China was from Malaysia. However, efforts are afoot to reverse the trend, notably facilitated by China's decision in August to allow raw fruit imports from Malaysia, as opposed to frozen pulp. In fact, the Malaysian government envisages a 50% export rise by 2030, notably to China. That country is known for its 'century eggs' alluded to earlier, the scentless white of which is contrasted by a yolk redolent of ammonia and sulfur, perfect for the devilishly curious foodie. For 2017, China's durian imports climbed 15% to around 350,000 tons with a value of USD510 million. The Chinese enjoy a range of durian-enriched food among which are pizza, butter, milk and even coffee, and retail prices have risen fourfold over recent years. That, and other potential markets will be targeted from July 26-28 at Malaysia's Durian Expo, where the principal smell will be that of money.

Downwind Downstream Markets

The commercial signs are good, as sector data shows Malaysian farmers today selling a kilogram of durians to wholesalers for MYR30, up from MYR9. This is just as well given the associated costs of export to China. That market stipulates freezing at -80 to -110 degrees Celsius for at least an hour, with storage and export occurring at -18 degrees or lower. This creates the need for costly farm-to-port refrigeration facilities, but at least mitigates waste. A money-maker may lie downstream in the shape of processed foodstuffs. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2018 fresh whole fruit were going for MYR40 (USD9) per kg, in stark contrast to downstream durian products priced at MYR1,000 (USD241.0) per kg. Bland food is truly one of life's downers. The durian, then, be it an acquired taste or a captured market, is not to be ignored.