Chinese investors and their Thai partners have inaugurated a durian processing factory in the insurgency-stricken Deep South, in a joint venture where hundreds of residents could reap jobs from the tasty fruit known for its spiny husk and stinky aroma, agriculture officials said.
Manguwang Food Co., Ltd., would employ up to 1,200 workers at its 700-million baht (U.S. $24 million) factory in Thepa, a district of Songkhla province that lies in the Deep South, company officials said. The factory will freeze dry and package durian grown in the region for export to China, where products made from the fruit are in great demand.
“The Deep South has quality and tasty durian,” Xiao Yaoheng, the company’s managing director, said during the factory’s opening ceremony on Sunday. “We are determined to help farmers in Deep South and promote durian internationally.”
By next year, the factory would be processing about 20,000 metric tons [44 million pounds] of durian, or about a third of the Deep South’s yearly crop, providing the region with an annual cash flow of 2 billion baht (U.S. $67 million), company officials told BenarNews.
Manguwang’s website lists two products that would be produced in Thailand: Freeze-dried whole durian and quick-frozen “durian pulp.” Freeze-drying involves the use of liquid nitrogen, allowing the fruit to be kept up to two years while maintaining its freshness, experts say.
King of fruits
Durian became even more popular in Southeast Asia when Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma showcased the magic of digital commerce when he visited Bangkok in April 2018, selling 80,000 golden-pillow durians within a minute on his retail website T-mall.
Thailand exported more than 600,000 tons (600 million kilograms or 1.3 billion pounds) of fresh durian and durian products such as candy bars last year to China, according to the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
After Alibaba’s announcement of plans to splash about U.S. $330 million in Thailand in its bid to tap Chinese consumer’s appetite for Thailand’s agricultural goods, the Deep South noticed a massive influx of Chinese importers, according to local media reports.
Farmers began cutting down rubber trees, replacing them with durians, and growers of fruits, such as mangosteen, also joined the fray, reports said. Durian farmers in neighboring Malaysia recently told reporters that demand for the fruit perked up since China began importing whole durians in May this year.
But Thai officials and traders cautioned that not every farmer or small-scale local trader in the region would benefit from the trend due to strict trade standards and lack of capital.
In 2018, China notified Thailand at least 1,700 times about pesticide contamination in the nation’s durian products. To solve the issue, Beijing officials called on farmers and traders to follow the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), an international system for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards.
Durian, nicknamed the King of Fruits, has an overpowering sulfuric scent and the texture of foie gras, but admirers describe it as delicious. It has been occasionally banned from public transport in Southeast Asia but has a strong number of buyers in China, with the Hong Kong consulting firm Plantations International predicting that the global market for the fruit could potentially reach $25 billion by 2030.
The GMP standard requires the Thai agriculture ministry to issue a certificate of quality to farmers, a paperwork hurdle that covers chemical use, quality control of soil and water, among other issues, Jamnong Petch-anand, an agriculture official in Yala, told BenarNews on Monday.
“Not many traders have such certificates,” Jamnong said. “But the government is trying to upgrade the standards of community traders.”
About 100 durian traders have recently received certificates, while authorities were still processing the papers for about 400 others, officials said.
‘Not real for me’
But small-scale local traders such as Yaya Jema said that the new factory would not immediately impact local farmers and smaller local traders because many do not have certificates, and the factory procures durian in 50-ton lots.
“Many farmers do not have the GMP certificate and smaller traders like me do not have capability to compile 50 tons of durian every day to sell to the company,” Yaya told BenarNews. “So, the government’s promise that it would get rid of commercial-scale middle man is not for real.”
According to the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database or U.N. Comtrade, Thailand exported 202.4 million kilograms (444.4 million pounds) of durians worth U.S. $418 million to China last year, reflecting Bangkok's position as the world’s biggest exporter of the pungent fruit.
About 460,000 people out of the Deep South’s population of about 2 million make a living through the agricultural sector, according to Thai officials.
But agriculture authorities could not immediately provide figures on how many farmers grow durian in the region, where Muslim rebels operate in a decades-old insurgency campaign that, according to rights groups, has killed almost 7,000 people since it reignited in 2004.