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Kinnow exports commenced at the beginning of this month and sellers say they’re targeting a 17 percent increase in exports by volume, compared to the previous season. On the face of it, the potential shipment of 350,000 tons of the prized citrus produce, seems promising. But peeling back the data reveals a sector whose exports are being squeezed.

The All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters Association says the onset of COVID-19 is driving up demand for fresh and processed citrus products because of the vitamin-C content which helps boost the human immune system. While this is a global trend, North American and European markets are major drivers of the demand surge. The EU’s orange production is based mainly in the bloc’s southern region, along the Mediterranean coast line. Spain and Italy make up four-fifths of output, while Greece, Portugal and others make up the rest. Across all these countries, the area under cultivation and output have been sliding consistently for at least a decade. Among other factors, their farmers are unable to compete with lower-priced fruit being shipped to the EU from other countries.

Despite a confluence of positive factors, Pakistani citrus exporters are unable to capitalize on market conditions. The current season’s export target, while higher than last year, is nowhere close to levels achieved in earlier years. Local growers say domestic cultivation is reliant on orchards that are, on average, 60 years old. The fruits grown here are prone to diseases like melanoses and other defects like blemishing. Consequently, most of this produce does not meet quality standards set out by the EU. Pakistani fruit exporters say they have imposed a ‘self-ban’ on selling to the region. Hence, benefiting from the short-term surge in demand in some of the biggest markets, is out of the question.

This is far from the only market that the country’s fruit exporters are being squeezed out of. Some other countries that have been favoured destinations for citrus sellers in previous years, are also falling off the list of markets for Pakistani exporters. Deliveries to Central Asian states like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have been sporadic through the years, with Pakistani exporters unable to gain a permanent foothold. The precipitous decline in exports to some other countries is due to exogenous factors, so not much can be done about those; for example, the ongoing war in Yemen.

Markets where demand is still strong, like the Middle East and China, are becoming more expensive to reach. Disruptions to international shipping are driving up rates and stifling the availability of containers for Pakistani exporters. This problem is all the more acute for exporters of fruit and fresh produce whose goods can only be transported in reefer containers.

Representatives of the domestic industry say they can ramp up exports significantly. Both FPCCI and PFVA say the annual exports of citrus can rise to $1 billion, within five years, with government support. Many other countries have managed to propel their horticulture, floriculture and similar industries achieve even loftier growth; and GoP can take a leaf from their playbooks. But far from being ready to juice this opportunity, the government is yet to figure out much simpler issues. The Economic Coordination Committee has met multiple times since the harvest season began. It is yet to set a timeline for citrus exports, despite repeated requests from growers and exporters. Whatever the reasons behind this indecision, authorities are leaving a low-hanging fruit hanging out to dry.

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