Mango season in India, the world’s largest producer, has coincided with the coronavirus lockdown, choking supply to domestic and international markets and sending prices tumbling.
India’s mangoes, which account for about half of global supply, are considered the world’s best and hold a unique place in the country’s culture, history and cuisine.
The arrival of juicy mangoes in April and May provides a tonic to India’s searing summer temperatures. In global export markets such as the Middle East, UK and US, Indian mangoes command a premium over varieties from Latin America and elsewhere.
But mango farmers and distributors have faced myriad difficulties this season as India’s decision to enter lockdown in late March to stem the spread of Covid-19 upended agricultural and food supply chains. They have struggled with a lack of labour to harvest mangoes, trucks to transport them to markets and ultimately weak demand due to a dearth of buyers.
“We are facing a lot of problems,” said Saud Rais Ali, a mango farmer in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He worried the bountiful months after the mango season, when farmers plan for family weddings or invest in new equipment, would be scuppered. “Now all that will be stopped.”
Mr Ali said mangoes offered a superior and more lucrative product for farmers like him. “It’s one of a kind. You cannot compare any other fruit with a mango,” he said. “It has a different class.”
Indeed, such is the fruit’s lofty status that it was a favourite of India’s Mughal emperors of the 17th and 18th centuries. Celebrated Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib wrote of its celestial qualities, musing over whether mangoes were sent by “the gardeners of heaven’s orchards”.
Yet since the pandemic hit, mango farmers have suffered from the same pressures as others involved in Indian agriculture. Farm work employs about half of the country’s labour force. Pressure on farmers is fuelling concerns about acute rural distress even after lockdown, which is due to end in the middle of this month.
Insram Ali, president of the All India Mango Growers Association, said Alphonso mangoes — a premium variety known as the “king” of mangoes — in the western state of Maharashtra were selling for as little as Rs500 ($6.60) a dozen, about a third of their usual price. “The situation is very grim,” he said.
He added that in some parts of the country farmers were already reeling after their mango crops were hit by unseasonal weather, such as storms.
Exporters have faced their own challenges. Kaushal Khakhar, chief executive of Kay Bee, one of the largest exporters of Indian mangoes to the UK and US, said his air freight costs had risen 300 per cent.
As a result, Kay Bee in recent weeks launched an online mango delivery service to target domestic customers confined to their homes. Mr Khakhar said he had received appeals from Indian buyers anxious to secure their fill of the fruit.
People associated mangoes with summer and fun, he said. They “are anxious to see the first mango, for the start of the season”.
“People always wait for the month of April and May to eat to their heart’s content,” Mr Khakhar said.